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Autonomous truck startup raises $200M but faces competition

The investment will fund Plus' autonomous driving software, which could enable long-haul trucks to drive themselves along long stretches of highway.

Autonomous truck startup Plus, formerly Plus.ai, raised $200 million in new funding. The sizeable investment in a relatively new company indicates investors' optimism in autonomous vehicles, particularly in self-driving, long-haul trucks.

"Trucks are one of the largest opportunities for [autonomous vehicles]," said R "Ray" Wang, founder of Constellation Research. 

Interstate roads are generally well maintained, he said, and long-haul is highly profitable. 

Forrester analyst Mike Gualtieri noted that "$200 million is a relatively small number compared to the billion-dollar potential of autonomous logistics."

Highway driving

Long-haul truckers have to obey federally mandated driving laws, which limit the amount of time they can spend on the road without taking a break.

Trucks armed with autonomous vehicle technology could potentially enable their drivers to take their hands off the wheel and rest, even as the truck keeps moving. The technology could keep trucks on the road while still adhering to federal laws. 

Plus' system aims to keep humans in the driver's seat, allowing their system to drive the highway parts of trips, while human drivers handle the rest. 

Founded in 2016, Plus develops automated driving software specifically designed for long-haul trucking, including localization and mapping algorithms to keep track of vehicle locations, as well as deep learning models to detect surrounding objects and vehicles and predict vehicle behavior. 

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The vendor, based in Cupertino, Calif., partners with vehicle manufacturers and vendors of lidar, radar and camera devices to outfit trucks with the data-gathering sensors required to power their algorithms. 

"Autonomous vehicles are 80% software and 20% control systems to make them hands-free," Gualtieri said.

Plus "is particularly interesting because they plan to retrofit existing rigs," he added.

Plus has tested its technology in cold and warm-weather U.S. states, and recently expanded a partnership with Chinese startup Full Truck Alliance to power that vendor's truck's autonomous system.

The competition

Plus faces stiff competition from major vehicle makers and other startups as the autonomous vehicle industry heats up. 

Tesla's semi-truck, first unveiled in 2017, is the big competitor in this market, Wang said. 

The electric truck will reportedly ship with Tesla's semi-autonomous driving system, although it's unclear when Tesla will make the vehicle available. The truck was originally supposed to go into production in 2019, but that timeline has since been pushed back a few times. 

Several other big automakers, including Toyota and General Motors, are developing autonomous cars, as are some big-name technology vendors, such as Alphabet and Apple. 

Technologically, autonomous trucks and cars share some similarities, such as using computer vision and environmental sensors to detect what's happening around the vehicle, Gualtieri said. 

Trucks are one of the largest opportunities for [autonomous vehicles].
R 'Ray' WangFounder, Constellation Research

But cars and trucks feature significant differences in safety features, as trucks could carry hazardous loads, he said. Then, car buyers look for good mileage and good performance, while trucks are more focused on efficiency, he continued.

The laws that govern cars and long-haul trucks also differ, and autonomous trucks could face greater legal liability risks, he said.

Autonomous vehicles aren't only cars and trucks.

From ground to water

Buffalo Automation, a 2015 New York startup, is testing an autonomous water taxi in Knoxville, Tenn.

The small boat, fitted with object-detecting cameras and equipped with GPS capabilities, can autonomously navigate bodies of water, avoiding debris and other obstacles, explained Thiru Vikram, co-founder and CEO of Buffalo Automation.

Capped at 5 knots (just under 6 mph), the boat is meant to ferry passengers across small bodies of water or provide them with low-key pleasure or fishing cruises. 

"It's practically a wooden log that is floating on the water," Vikram said, highlighting the slow and safe speed at which the boat travels.

To use the vessel, passengers need only download a corresponding app to their phone that enables them to place a pin on a map. The boat will automatically move to the pinpoint. Passengers can also use the app as a kind of joystick, manually making the boat move forward or backward, left or right.

The autonomous boat is still in a testing phase in Knoxville, a city known for its high concentration of marine manufacturers located on the Tennessee River, according to Caleb Knight, director of business attraction for the Knoxville Chamber business group.

Knight said he is hoping to entice Buffalo Automation to open an office in the city, employ locals and hire interns from local universities. 

While Vikram would not confirm his plans, he said the startup will soon donate the vessel to a local university for use as a floating research lab on weekdays and a free ferry service on weekends.

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