Autonomous trucks are now moving UPS loads — and it shows that driverless trucks may be just a few years away from disrupting the $800 billion trucking industry

  • UPS bought a minority stake in the self-driving truck company TuSimple.
  • The Atlanta-based package giant is also moving loads in TuSimple trucks. (The autonomous trucks still have a driver and engineer monitoring operations in the cabin at all times.)
  • It shows that autonomous trucking is closer than many may believe. TuSimple executives told Business Insider that commercially-viable autonomous trucks will be available by 2023.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

UPS announced on Thursday that its venture-capital arm UPS Ventures bought a minority stake in one of the hottest self-driving truck startups around: TuSimple.

Based in San Diego and Beijing, TuSimple has a fleet of dozens of self-driving trucks that operate daily in Arizona and Texas. The company already moves shipments for Fortune 500 companies in its trucks, which have a driver and engineer in the cabin at all times to monitor operations and ensure safety.

This spring, TuSimple began piloting self-driving shipments for UPS – one of the world’s most well-known parcel delivery companies with nearly 112 years in business. UPS Ventures announced its investment following the tests.

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“Autonomous technology has the potential to completely shape the industry,” UPS Ventures managing partner Todd Lewis told Business Insider. “And for us, we see it as an opportunity – and I feel like a shameless pun here -to be in the driver’s seat, to help influence the technology, and help design it in a way that can positively impact our people, our network and our customers.”

Founded in 2015, TuSimple isn’t moving residential UPS packages, but rather truckloads of freight goods in the UPS Supply Chains Solution network, which is a business-to-business outfit. Lewis said the autonomous trucks are moving “a very small percentage” of UPS goods, and are not impacting small package deliveries at customers’ homes “at this time.”

Xiaodi Hou
TuSimple founder, president and CTO Xiaodi Hou Courtesy of TuSimple

While the amount of goods moved for UPS is relatively small, the investment is major for TuSimple.

“As we’ve collaborated with UPS, we’re better understanding the constraints and the goals and the aspirations of a very complex, modern logistics operation,” Chuck Price, chief product officer at TuSimple, told Business Insider. “This clarifies the choices that we make when we’re building the system. It grounds our decisions in a way that we can’t do just as engineers sitting back and speculating on how a fleet might use it. We actually have a fleet that is collaborating with us.”

Self-driving trucks may be approaching faster than we thought

TuSimple raised $US95 million in funding in February and says it has the largest fleet of self-driving trucks in the world. The company is unusual among self-driving truckers in that it operates revenue-generating routes – most autonomous driving freight technologies are still in the testing phase.

The industry transformations that self-driving trucks promise are massive – for better and for worse. The economy would save an estimated $US300 billion, and productivity in the trucking industry jump by 30% because driverless trucks would run 24/7.

Read more:
Driverless technology might actually add as many jobs as it destroys, but the new roles will be ‘the worst trucking jobs around’

Those labour savings, however, could cause vast systemic change in one of America’s biggest blue-collar jobs. Eliminating the job of “truck driver” would put at least 1.8 million Americans out of work. Leaders in the trucking industry, and truck drivers themselves, have told Business Insider that a slew of regulatory and technology roadblocks ensure that self-driving trucks are years, even decades, away.

But this investment from UPS in TuSimple shows that the technology is indeed approaching quickly. Price told Business Insider that TuSimple aims to have the engineer and driver out of TuSimple trucks by 2021, and then to have those truly autonomous trucks available on the market by 2023.

“We kind of have our eyes on the future here, but we’re placing our money on the here and now,” Lewis said. “We believe the short term benefits of this technology are great, and the potential to help influence those is why we’re here. It’s why we’re having this discussion.”