The autonomous truck startup is executing a viable strategy to achieve driverless operation for a critical trucking segment.
Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have become a trendy funding source for AV startups seeking to survive the lengthy and expensive deployment phase and the transition to production.
A recent post provided an overview of the SPAC process and a summary of ten AV-related companies using the funding mechanism to emerge as publicly-traded companies.
Among them is Plus, a startup developing a software platform focused on autonomous trucks, providing what looks like a path to driverless systems. Plus entered the SPAC portal in May 2021.
Below is a summary of the startup’s business and technology strategy along with its customers and future plans. The information is based on a recent investor presentation and public statements along with information from David Liu, the startup’s CEO and co-founder. Unlike other startups, the Plus investor presentation contains a wealth of detail about autonomous truck technology.
Plus is a developing a software and hardware platform focused specifically on autonomous trucking, centered on a product dubbed PlusDrive. The company is concentrating on the hub-to-hub trucking segment, also called middle-mile trucking. The long-hall segment is focused on highway driving primarily, which is easier to deploy using current technology and safety features.
The Plus strategy involves deploying L4 autonomous trucks, or “high automation,” in three phases. Phase one starting this year covers safety drivers on highways only, which Plus calls Supervised L4 (SL4). The next phase starting in 2022 or 2023 adds SL4 capability to navigate among highway ramps.
The third step is full L4 autonomy without a safety driver for the hub-to-hub trucking segment only. This is scheduled to start in 2024.
The ambitious strategy is based on what logistics companies want and need to respond to tremendous growth in hub-to-hub shipping volume and the shortage of truck drivers. Lower SL4 operating costs represent a significant advantage.
Autonomous truck technology
Plus is developing self-driving software tailored to autonomous trucks, betting its approach will generate cost savings for stretched logistics fleets. Those savings will be used to convince potential customers in China and the U.S. to deploy SL4 trucks.
For current SL4 trucks, Plus is using the Nvidia Drive platform based on its Xavier SoC with 30-TOPS performance. For its 2024 autonomous trucks, Plus plans to use the same platform augmented with a quad Orin SoC with 508 TOPS performance.
The images below show sensors Plus is using in its current L4 trucks with safety drivers for the U.S. and China. The U.S. SL4 trucks use eight cameras, including two high-definition cameras. There are also five radars and two time-of-flight lidars—one lidar on each side symmetrically attached to the bottom of the side mirror. Ouster is the current lidar supplier. The U.S. sensor portfolio is optimized for a retrofit installation in logistics fleets.
The SL4 trucks destined for China have one lidar mounted near the front window. Otherwise, the sensors are similar. The sensor portfolio for China is optimized for truck OEM installations.
A driver monitoring system is included in both U.S. and China versions to verify the safety driver is alert.
For 2024 L4 trucks without safety drivers, the sensor portfolio must be updated. The camera count is the same, but there are six HD cameras instead of two. An infrared camera will be added for better pedestrian identification and improved visibility in inclement weather. Plus announced this month it will test forward-looking infrared cameras from Teledyne FLIR.
Sensor coverage is also improved with two traditional radars and one 4D radar. The additional HD radar provides greater resolution and longer range.
Meanwhile, time-of-flight (ToF) lidars will be doubled to four along with the addition of a FMCW (frequency modulated continuous wave) lidar. FMCW lidar provides greater resolution and range than ToF radars and are nearly immune to interference from other lidars.
The chart below provides greater detail about the performance evolution of PlusDrive from 2021 to 2024.
Electronics costs for autonomous truck technologies are declining rapidly: from about $100,000 for the Plus prototype SL4 system in 2019 to an estimated $9,000 in 2021, with further declines under $7,000 by 2023.
Plus said it is using three separate customer engagement models: truck OEM integration, logistic fleet retrofit and PlusDrive-as-a-Service.
Currently, the truck OEM business model is only used in China but can be deployed in other regions when Plus gains new OEM customers. According to its investor presentation, Plus would receive mark-up revenue of about $27,000 per SL4 truck.
The primary U.S. business model involves supplying PlusDrives retrofitted to logistics fleets. The investor presentation shows estimated revenue of $17,000 per PlusDrive, along with an annual recurring fee of $1,000.
Meanwhile, PlusDrive-as-a-Service can be used in both U.S. and China, yielding a $30,000 upfront fee with an annual recurring sum of up to $50,000.
Testing and trials
Plus has performed extensive testing in China and U.S. The startup told investors it has tested its framework in 17 U.S. states with plans for future testing in 21 others. It will also test in Europe.
In August, Plus announced a driverless L4 truck demonstration was completed on a Chinese highway. An earlier driverless L4 demo in a controlled Chinese port setting was completed in 2018. Dedicated environments are the simplest L4 ODDs. Plus has said it expects to launch pilot operations of a fully driverless truck for use in a dedicated environment in 2022.
Trial operations with logistics partners have proven very important. Plus disclosed two examples included in the table above. A 2019 trial with Amazon was significant, demonstrating operational cost savings with a safety driver aboard. Amazon used five SL4 trucks in 141 freight runs of 12,000 miles, with more than 90 percent in autonomous mode. This trial yielded fuel savings of up to 20 percent.
Similar pilots with SF Express of China in March 2021 yielded comparable fuel savings during SL4 truck runs. The SF Express trial used two SL4 trucks in 130 runs totaling 130,000 miles.
The trials generate pre-orders, which are crucial to the startup’s plan for reaching driverless L4. More on that below.
Plus is currently working with two truck OEMs—FAW and Iveco, with more partners expected. It is also partnering with two leading logistics companies—Amazon in the U.S. and SF Express in China with more coming via FAW fleet customers.
In September, Plus began delivering PlusDrive SL4 production units to FAW, which will integrate the platform as part of China’s first autonomous trucks. FAW will install PlusDrive on its production line. The partners will update and maintain the autonomous driving technology. The autonomous trucks will use a safety driver.
FAW is China’s largest truck manufacturer. It has received thousands of autonomous truck pre-orders from large logistics fleets, including Duckbill, Guangzhou Zhihong and Rokin. The three Chinese logistics companies operate over 130,000 trucks.
Fuel-efficient trucking technologies are needed to meet increasingly strict carbon emissions reduction targets in many countries. Plus is working with several partners to reduce emissions, including a partnership with Goodyear to improve tires. It is also collaborating with engine manufacturer Cummins and truck maker Iveco to develop natural gas-powered autonomous trucks.
In June, Plus announced an order from Amazon to purchase at least 1,000 Plus autonomous truck retrofit units. As part of the PlusDrive order, Amazon received warrants for up to 20 percent of the startup’s outstanding stock—a share based on the number of PlusDrive systems Amazon will buy. Amazon must purchase 10,000 PlusDrive systems to buy 20 percent of Plus shares. The first PlusDrive systems were delivered to Amazon in February 2021.
So far, Plus has received orders for more than 7,800 PlusDrive-based autonomous trucks—including more than 1,000 from Amazon and Chinese customers. Three other truck OEMs performing pilot testing and are likely to become future customers.
The key to developing driverless L4 vehicles is the ability to handle edge cases, or traffic events the software driver has not yet experienced. To discover and learn new edge cases requires billions of miles of experience, either through simulated or road miles. Plus plans to leverage both.
The challenge is how to get billions of road miles in a short time at reasonable costs. This is where the Plus strategy of supervised L4 deployment via large logistics fleets excels.
Over the next several years, Plus plans to achieve driverless L4 for hub-to-hub operations by acquiring billions of miles of road experience while in SL4 driving mode. In compiling billions of miles, the SL4 trucks will encounter edge cases unknown to PlusDrive. Safety drivers are expected to handle the new driving scenarios. The startup’s Closed-Loop Data Engine is designed for training and validating PlusDrive. The software system leverages data from new edge cases to steadily improve PlusDrive, enable a self-driving capability.
Plus and its customer will have more than 300 SL4 trucks in operation this year, accumulating 17 million miles of training data. In 2022, Plus expects to sell 3,800 SL4 trucks and reach 270 million miles. In 2023, PlusDrive sales are forecasted to reach 18,000 SL4 trucks, accumulating another 1.9 billion miles. Sales could reach 56,000 SL4 trucks by 2024, accumulating up to 7.9 billion miles of road experience.
Taken together, this represents a sound strategy that will achieve driverless L4 for a specific operational domain—hub-to-hub transportation. The timing could take longer than Plus and its customers expect, but the plan is likely to succeed in the long run.
Plus was founded in 2016 and has so far raised $520 million in venture funding from over 20 investors. In May, Plus announced a planned merger with Hennessy Capital Investment Corp. The SPAC deal gives Plus a valuation of $3.3 billion, allowing it to raise about $500 million when the merger closes at the end of this year.
Plus is forecasting sales of 314 PlusDrives in 2021, growing 12-fold to 3,878 in 2022. PlusDrive sales are forecast to grow to 18,390 in 2023, jumping to more than 100,000 by 2025. Those projections include sales to truck OEMs and logistics fleets.
Plus has outlined a very good strategy for development and testing while quickly generating revenue. Especially impressive is its strategy to get billions of miles of road experience in L4 driving with a safety driver.
Taken together, this represents a viable path to driverless L4 operation for the hub-to-hub trucking segment. That segment represents a large portion of the trucking industry, and is currently experiencing significant driver shortages.
The AV technology plan is also sound, a judgement based on the fact that Plus has disclosed more details about autonomous trucking than any other AV software developer.
The computing strategy also appears solid based as it is on Nvidia Drive platform, augmented with 4D radar, FMCW lidar and infrared camera by 2024.
The challenge for Plus is delivering on its ambitious deployment schedule. Even with delays in developing driverless L4 trucks, Plus has the best chance to succeed.
This article was originally published on EE Times.
Egil Juliussen has over 35 years’ experience in the high-tech and automotive industries. Most recently he was director of research at the automotive technology group of IHS Markit. His latest research was focused on autonomous vehicles and mobility-as-a-service. He was co-founder of Telematics Research Group, which was acquired by iSuppli (IHS acquired iSuppli in 2010); before that he co-founded Future Computing and Computer Industry Almanac. Previously, Dr. Juliussen was with Texas Instruments where he was a strategic and product planner for microprocessors and PCs. He is the author of over 700 papers, reports and conference presentations. He received B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Purdue University, and is a member of SAE and IEEE.