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UPS Testing and Investing in Self-Driving Trucks

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Data & Technology
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With its relatively short payback period and the potential to reduce carbon emissions, it was only a matter of time before autonomous driving technology worked its way into the long-haul shipping sector. In fact, it’s already here. Last May, the U.S. Postal Service tested self-testing trucks developed by the startup TuSimple, and now UPS has upped the ante. It has tested the truck and bought a stake in the company, too.

A future of self-driving trucks?

UPS made the investment in TuSimple through its UPS Ventures division, announcing completion of the deal on August 13.

The self-driving trucks in question are no mere delivery vans. TuSimple has designed its autonomous technology around class 8 tractor-trailers with at least three axles, topping 33,000 pounds.

A driver is in the test vehicle at all times, as required by law. The trucks are still in test phase, using a 114-mile stretch of highway in Arizona between Phoenix and Tucson.

If all goes according to plan, the test runs could have wide implications for the entire long-haul trucking industry. TuSimple and UPS have adopted the ambitious goal of developing Level 4 Autonomous trucking, meaning that no driver would be required.

UPS has already been providing TuSimple with freight to carry on the Phoenix-Tucson route since May, and the two companies have been collecting time, distance and safety data for the hauls.

The benefits of an autonomous long-haul fleet

As for the bottom line, TuSimple anticipates that its autonomous service will reduce transportation costs by an ambitious 30 percent.

The safety factor comes into play partly through the autonomous system’s 1,000-meter range of vision and its ability to see and react more quickly than most human beings, especially when they are bored, drowsy or distracted. That includes driving at night and during inclement weather. In particular, an autonomous system could reduce rear-end accidents, one of the most common accidents involving trucks.

TuSimple also emphasizes the carbon-cutting factor, with evidence mounting to back up its claims.

Last year, for example, McKinsey & Company took a deep dive into the potential for fuel savings and came up with 10 percent or more, depending on the level of autonomy.

Labor costs are clearly another major factor, though McKinsey is among those who predict that fully autonomous trucking is many years away.

UPS and carbon emissions

Taking a vanguard position in autonomous driving is part of a broader sustainability strategy that teams UPS with new technology and innovative new systems.

In other recent steps, the company has partnered with Terracycle and the startup Loop to pick up and deliver household supplies in reusable containers.

UPS has also been active in the area of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell delivery trucks, which could draw it into the emerging renewable hydrogen field as well.

The shipping business has existed as long as there have been, well, ships. It has always adapted to new technology, and UPS is among those aiming to pick up the pace of innovation to meet the expectations and demands of a more sustainable future.

Image credit: TuSimple/Twitter

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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