On the Road with PlusDrive: Lessons Learned from the Massive Deployment of a Highly Automated Driving Solution for Trucking
Autonomous trucking technology companies share the belief that large driverless platforms will help alleviate many of the industry’s biggest problems, from driver shortages and turnover rates to rising insurance costs, fuel and labor.
Where competitors diverge is in their marketing strategies. Most startups and OEMs wait to deliver an automated trucking solution until the technology is safe enough to operate in fully driverless mode, i.e. without a human driver behind the wheel.
Plus, headquartered in Cupertino, Calif., takes a different approach. The company is developing a suite of autonomous driving solutions, ranging from highly automated driving to fully autonomous driving. Plus has already deployed a highly automated driving product, PlusDrive, to customer fleets for use in commercial freight operations since early 2021.
“The idea is to deploy this system at scale and provide immediate gains to fleets,” said Anurag Ganguli, Vice President of R&D at Plus. PlusDrive saves 10% or more fuel, plus boosts safety and increases driver retention through increased driver comfort.
With PlusDrive, truck drivers stay in the cab to monitor the self-driving technology, but they don’t have to actively drive the vehicle. Instead, they can activate PlusDrive to automatically navigate the truck on highways in all traffic conditions, including staying centered in the lane, changing lanes and managing stop-and-go traffic.
Data collected during mass deployments feeds into the second part of Plus’ go-to-market strategy. Engineers use the data to continuously improve software and models and where the system can drive, “eventually allowing us to expand 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 using them on public roads nationwide.
Real world imperatives: cost effective and easy to install
Ganguli outlined the key principles of Plus’ scalable strategy at Auto AI, an autonomous vehicle technology summit held earlier this year in San Francisco. His keynote focused on lessons learned from mass deployments of Plus and how Plus is addressing the technical and business challenges of advancing autonomous heavy-duty trucks.
The first lesson may seem obvious but has huge ramifications for design. Class 8 self-driving trucks are fundamentally different from self-driving passenger cars, Ganguli said. “Trucks are wider, heavier and longer than passenger cars, and take a lot of distance and time to stop,” he explained. “It forces you to think about issues, especially perception issues, in a different way.”
Guided by the specific dynamics of heavy trucking, PlusDrive engineers designed a sensor suite that combines cameras, radar and lidar to provide a 360° view of the truck, eliminating dangerous blind spots that cause more than 400,000 accidents per year. Cost effectiveness and ease of installation were central to the design process.
“This is a consumer product,” Ganguli said. “It has to hit a certain price point.”
Forward-looking cameras are mounted behind the windshield, protecting equipment 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.
Understand the road in real time
Many autonomous trucking systems rely on expensive high-definition (HD) maps of the road environment to understand what’s going on around the truck and how it should react.
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 meltdown scenarios.
“The system tries to understand not just the route, but the semantics of the scene,” Ganguli said. “It’s difficult, but once you get it right, it’s much more scalable [than HD maps].”
Teach trucks how to drive through edge cases and event exploration
Plus’s autonomous strategy shapes the company’s approach to “tail cases”: the unusual and rare events encountered by vehicles on the road.
Let’s take the example of a vehicle transporting a wind turbine on the highway. As noted by Ganguli, depth perception in this case poses unusual challenges because the closest point to the blade is farthest from the vehicle carrying it.
Human drivers use a combination of prior experience, intuition, and critical thinking to determine how to safely respond to extreme cases, which include weather anomalies, abnormal road conditions, vehicle breakdowns, and unusual vehicles. .
A self-driving truck, on the other hand, must learn to react to unexpected events. Plus achieves this by exposing the system to real-world conditions that correspond to extreme situations.
The massive deployment of PlusDrive is essential to the execution of this objective. As PlusDrive-equipped trucks travel the country’s roads, the system collects and extracts data specifically related to extreme cases. This process, called “event extraction”, also takes into account signals from the human driver when operating the truck manually.
“Whenever we encounter an event, the software detects it and downloads the data corresponding to these events,” Ganguli explained.
Collect. Simulate. Test. Repeat.
The next step is for engineers to analyze the data using complex large-scale simulations that are tested and validated time and time again. Updated models and software are then incorporated into over-the-air updates to improve PlusDrive’s performance.
“We are continually learning, measuring and validating,” Ganguli said.
Keep freight moving, now and in the future
The recently averted rail strike is 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 enjoy range-related safety features and efficiency now – at a price that makes sense for today’s customers.
As mass deployments of the PlusDrive driver solution continue, Plus leverages the power of big data and the real-world driving experience to make trucks safer, smarter and more sustainable.