Baby Health in Winter
Self-driving truck developer Plus.ai announced today they have finalized an agreement with the Transportation Research Center (TRC) in Ohio to conduct rigorous testing of their Automated Driving System (ADS) in realistic conditions. The company calls this “an important step to prepare Plus.ai to safely roll out the industry’s first self-driving trucks.”
Testing will evaluate the ability of Plus.ai’s trucks to consistently handle multiple vehicle scenarios that best simulate complex, realistic driving conditions. Significantly, while much of the testing for high-tech crash avoidance systems in the past has been done with the vehicle-under-test interacting with a single vehicle, the approach here is to place the truck within a multi-vehicle context while driving at highway speeds on TRC’s four lane 7.5 mile oval test track in East Liberty, Ohio. As Dr. Josh Every, Director of Advanced Mobility at TRC puts it, “We human drivers rarely look at only one vehicle in forming our next move. Typically we are aware of multiple vehicles and estimate what they might do in response to our actions. In the same way, complex multi-vehicle scenarios should be presented in testing an automated vehicle.” As Plus.ai puts it, “This is a more rigorous test of the perception, prediction, and planning systems, involving aspects that would not be tested in a single other-vehicle approach.”
The core question is, can the truck accurately perceive what’s happening on the road and apply controls to provide a safe response? The range of responses include steering, braking, accelerating, executing a lane change, or a combination of all of these. Testing scenarios will include highway driving in both free-flowing and stop-and-go traffic, construction zones, disabled vehicles, and bicycles. Operating conditions will cover a range of weather conditions, visibility, and lighting.
Critically, not only is the testing independent, the design of the test is independent. TRC is calling the shots on the approach and test scenarios. According to Brett Roubinek, TRC CEO, they will “execute a battery of tests using our full set of tools and pushing the limits of commercial vehicle testing.” Plus.ai says that the initial test plan development phase is complete and testing is expected to begin in the coming months.
To my knowledge, this is the first public announcement of independent testing of automated trucks. While internal testing can also be a legitimate way to validate an ADS, having independent experts take the lead in testing can be a good way to provide confidence to regulators and the public. It’s just different when an impartial party is raking you over the coals!
Headquartered in Silicon Valley, Plus.ai was founded in 2016 to provide full-stack self-driving technology enabling large scale autonomous commercial transport. The company notes they are currently working with leading truck manufacturers, shippers, and fleet operators. Like most other automated trucking startups, Plus.ai is developing their system to handle the highway portion of freight trips, with human-operated trucks handling the load for first / last mile on surface streets. In mid-2019, Plus.ai expanded internationally, announcing a joint venture with FAW Jiefang, China’s largest truck manufacturer, to develop autonomous trucks for the Chinese market. Plus.ai says that in 2021, this exclusive partnership will launch its first product, a production-class SAE Level 2 semi-autonomous truck, built on Plus.ai’s autonomous technology stack. The FAW Level 2 truck is intended to be the joint venture’s first commercial product, with the product roadmap including a full Level 4 truck in the next three to five years.
The TRC agreement is the newest aspect of a wide range of testing for Plus.ai. Last October they partnered with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to test its technology on the agency’s MnROAD cold-weather pavement testing facility northwest of Minneapolis. The partnership includes information sharing about self-driving truck performance in tough winter conditions in order to inform public policy discussions. Also, toward the end of last year the company completed a 2,800 mile commercial freight run under test on behalf of Land O’Lakes, Inc., traveling from Tulare, CA to Quakertown, PA in less than three days. Plus.ai claims this was the first self-driving U.S. cross-country commercial pilot hauling a fully-loaded refrigerated trailer of perishable cargo. With its fleet of about 20 trucks equipped for automated driving, Plus.ai has tested their ADS in 17 states so far: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The company has plans to test in all permissible states by the end of Q1 2021. All testing is done with a professionally trained safety driver behind the wheel and a trained Vehicle Operations Specialist in the passenger seat who manages the system’s health and identifies areas for data enrichment. In preparation for product launch, Plus.ai recently added Dennis Mooney, former senior vice president at Navistar International Corporation, to its Advisory Board.
TRC is legendary in vehicle engineering circles. Whether it be cars, motorcycles, trucks, or buses, generations of traditional automotive engineers have been on the TRC tarmac sweating over the outcome of “their baby” being put through its paces. The largest independent automotive testing facility and proving grounds in North America, it is also home to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Research and Test Center. TRC conducts a wide range of traditional vehicle testing focused on areas such as safety, energy, fuel economy, emissions, durability, noise, crash, crash simulation, and performance. They have recently built a new “SMARTCenter” research complex specifically designed for automated and connected vehicle testing of both passenger cars and heavy trucks. Other large scale test tracks in North America are typically owned by vehicle OEMs. By being independent, TRC’s client base is very diverse, from startups to OEMs, giving them a unique viewpoint on the industry as a whole.
Is independent testing of ADS the way to go in reassuring customers, fostering government support, and gaining public acceptance? Shawn Kerrigan, COO and co-founder of Plus.ai, feels strongly about this, saying, “We believe an independent party should validate a self-driving system’s road readiness using realistic, complex scenarios, much like humans have to pass driving tests in order to be licensed. We hope this becomes a model for the testing of all automated trucks in the future.” The company says the current testing will evolve into “a more comprehensive and ongoing test program that will build on this experience to ensure Plus.ai’s self-driving system is safe and validated for commercialization.”
There are many ways to gain trust. As we potentially head into a new presidential administration and a changed Congress, we could see tectonic shifts in the regulatory environment which have the effect of moving the self-driving vehicle industry from self-certification to more formal validation processes which could include independent testing. Or not. It’s much too early to say. This is just one of the many inter-dependent moving parts in the ever-evolving self-driving ecosystem.
Disclosure: Richard Bishop is an Advisor to Plus.ai.
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