On the road with PlusDrive: Lessons from mass deployment of a highly automated driving trucking solution
Performance and value key to unlocking benefits for fleets today
Autonomous trucking technology companies share the belief that driverless big rigs will help alleviate many of the industry’s biggest problems, from driver shortages and turnover rates to rising insurance, fuel and labor costs.
Where competitors diverge is in their commercialization strategies. Most startups and OEMs are holding off on delivering an automated trucking solution until the technology is safe enough to operate in full driverless mode – that is, without a human driver behind the wheel.
Plus, headquartered in Santa Clara, California, is taking a different approach. The company is building a suite of autonomous driving solutions, from highly automated driving to fully autonomous driving. Plus has already deployed to customer fleets for use in commercial freight operations a highly automated driving product, PlusDrive, since early 2021.
“The idea is that we deploy this system at scale and provide immediate gains for fleets,” said Anurag Ganguli, Plus’s Vice President of R&D. PlusDrive yields 10% or more fuel savings, in addition to boosting safety and increasing driver retention through increased driver comfort.
With PlusDrive, truck drivers stay in the cabin to oversee the autonomous driving technology, but they do not have to actively drive the vehicle. Instead, they can turn on PlusDrive to automatically drive the truck on highways in all traffic conditions, including staying centered in the lane, changing lanes and handling stop-and-go traffic.
The data collected through the mass deployments feeds into the second part of Plus’s commercialization strategy. Engineers use the data to continuously improve the software and models and where the system can drive, eventually “enabling us to extend our solutions to include a fully driverless option,” Ganguli explained.
Amazon and some of the world’s largest fleets have already installed PlusDrive units on their trucks, and are currently operating them on public roads nationwide.
Real-world imperatives: cost-efficient and easy to install
Ganguli outlined the key tenets of Plus’s evolutionary strategy during Auto AI, an autonomous vehicle technology summit held earlier this year in San Francisco. His talk focused on lessons learned from Plus’s mass deployments, and how Plus tackles the technical and business challenges tied to advancing autonomous heavy-duty trucks.
The first lesson might seem obvious but has huge ramifications for design. Autonomous Class 8 trucks are fundamentally different from autonomous passenger cars, said Ganguli. “Trucks are wider, heavier and longer than passenger cars, and take a lot of distance and time to stop,” he explained. “That forces you to think of problems, especially perception problems, in a different way.”
Guided by the specific dynamics of heavy-duty trucking, PlusDrive engineers designed a sensor package that combines cameras, radar and lidar to provide a 360° view of the truck, eliminating dangerous blind spots that cause more than 400,000 crashes annually. Cost efficiency and ease of installation were central to the design process.
“This is a mass market product,” Ganguli said. “It has to meet a certain price point.”
Front-sensing cameras are mounted behind the windshield, protecting the hardware from the environment without the need for additional cleaning and heating solutions. A modular side and rear sensing assembly design, in which side cameras, lidar and radar are integrated into the side mirrors, is another example of PlusDrive’s attention to cost as well as function.
Understanding the road in real-time
Many autonomous trucking systems rely on expensive High Definition (HD) maps of the road environment to understand what’s happening around the truck and how it should respond.
Although PlusDrive uses HD maps, the system relies on a real-time perception-based model to detect and respond to road scenarios, from identifying lane markings to understanding different merge scenarios.
“The system tries to understand not just the road but the semantics of the scene,” Ganguli said. “It’s tough, but once you get it right, it’s much more scalable [than HD maps].”
Teaching trucks how to drive through edge cases and event mining
Plus’s autonomous strategy shapes the company’s approach to “edge cases:” the unusual and rare events vehicles encounter while on the road.
Consider a vehicle carrying a wind turbine down the highway. As Ganguli noted, depth perception in this case poses unusual challenges because the nearest point to the blade is the farthest away from the vehicle carrying it.
Human drivers use a combination of previous experience, intuition and critical thinking to figure out how to respond safely to edge cases, which include weather anomalies, abnormal road surface conditions, vehicle breakdowns and unusual vehicles.
A self-driving truck, by contrast, needs to be “taught” how to respond to unexpected events. Plus accomplishes this by exposing the system to real-world conditions that correspond to edge-case situations.
The mass deployment of PlusDrive is critical to executing on that goal. As PlusDrive-equipped trucks travel the nation’s roadways, the system collects and mines data specifically tied to edge cases. This process, called “event mining,” also factors in cues from the human driver when they are operating the truck manually.
“Everytime we encounter an event, the software detects it and uploads the data corresponding to those events,” Ganguli explained.
Collect. Simulate. Test. Repeat.
The next step is for engineers to analyze the data using large-scale complex simulations that are tested and validated over and over again. Updated models and software are then incorporated into over-the-air updates to improve PlusDrive performance.
“We continually learn, measure and validate,” Ganguli said.
Keep freight moving, now and in the future
The recently averted rail strike was the latest evidence that supply chain disruption is here to stay — even as pressure to move loads quickly and safely intensifies.
PlusDrive enables fleets to take advantage of the safety features and efficiencies tied to autonomy now – at a price point that makes sense for today’s customers.
As mass deployments of the PlusDrive driver-in solution continue, Plus is leveraging the power of big data and real-world driving experience to continually make trucks safer, smarter, and more sustainable.
This article was originally published by FreightWaves: https://www.freightwaves.com/news/on-the-road-with-plusdrive-lessons-from-mass-deployment-of-a-highly-automated-driving-trucking-solution.