TuSimple is in trouble.
Last April, a San Diego-based trailer truck that was traveling on I-10 in Tucson, Arizona, suddenly veered left and slammed into a concrete dividing wall, according to dashcam images leaked to YouTuber Asian Mai. TuSimple blamed “human error”, but a report in The Wall Street Journal says that’s a major oversimplification.
An internal report reviewed by the log says the crash happened because “a person in the cab failed to properly reboot the autonomous driving system before turning it on, causing it to execute an outdated command.” The left turn order was 2.5 minutes old and should have been erased, but it wasn’t, according to the internal report.
But autonomous vehicle researchers say it’s misleading to blame the crash on human error, arguing that common safety measures would have prevented the autonomous driving system from executing the outdated command and likely prevented the crash. AV systems should not respond to commands that are even a few hundredths of a second old, the researchers told the log. And sharp turns at 65 km/h should never have been.
TuSimple, a leading provider of autonomous truck technology, insists no one was injured in the crash and no property was damaged. “This is the first incident on the road for which we have been responsible,” the company said in a statement posted a statement on its website. “Although our safety record is many times better than traditional manually driven trucks, we take our responsibility to identify and resolve all safety issues very seriously.”
TuSimple gave more details about the crash in its report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which began collecting data on accidents involving autonomous vehicles last year.
According to TuSimple’s request:
While the truck was being used on the highway, within the mapped [operational design domain]the driver and test engineer tried the [automated driving system]. However, the ADS was not functioning at the time because the computer unit had not been initialized and should not have been attempted to be activated. Basically, this was a failed attempt to arm the system due to human error.
The incident is already under investigation by federal regulators. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, launched a “safety compliance investigation” in response to the April crash, according to a letter obtained by Asian Mai and reviewed by the log. NHTSA is also reportedly joining the investigation.
A spokesperson for the FMCSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the NHTSA declined to comment. A TuSimple spokesperson also did not respond.
According to the NHTSA, there were 130 accidents involving vehicles equipped with automatic driving systems from July 2021 to May 2022. Only three of those accidents involved an autonomous truck; the vast majority were passenger cars.
Founded in 2015, TuSimple currently uses Navistar trucks equipped with the startup’s proprietary self-driving technology, which sees the world largely through 20 cameras and two lidar laser sensors. The company is supported by UPS, Nvidia and Chinese technology company Sina, and it has headquarters in San Diego and Beijing. TuSimple was the first autonomous truck startup to go public and list shares on the Nasdaq in April 2021 with a valuation of $8.5 billion.
TuSimple has said it is aiming for a completely driverless system, but currently the trucks include two human operators to monitor the driving and take over when needed. The April incident took place with two employees in the cab of the truck, but the company has conducted full self-tests on public roads.
Autonomous freight transport is beginning to emerge from the shadows of the much larger robotic taxi industry. Alphabet’s Waymo has tested its self-driving trailers in Texas, Arizona and California and is also partnering with UPS. Other companies — from established players like Daimler to newcomers like Ike, to boardand plus.ai — are also working on a fully self-driving truck.
But it hasn’t gone smoothly for everyone. Uber abandoned its plans for self-driving trucks after one of its self-driving cars killed a pedestrian in Arizona, and Starsky Robotics recently went bankrupt after a failed financing round.