Self-driving truck butter, completes first cross-country freight delivery.
If you happen to live in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, some 50 miles outside of Philadelphia, your next stick of creamy butter just may have been delivered via self-driving freight truck. It’s believed to be the first time an autonomous freight vehicle has made a cross-country trip, let alone a commercial delivery.
Plus.ai, the company behind the self-driving technology, announced the news on Tuesday. The company has only been around since 2016, so this is a particularly interesting feat.
The founders, a group of Stanford Ph.D. students, knew that trucking—which has been experiencing a labor shortage since 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—is the primary method for shipping goods across the U.S. So they decided to apply their artificial intelligence know-how to long-haul trucking, building out the full-stack self-driving technology needed to make a cross country freight trip possible.
The trip took about 41 hours to complete, according to data from Google Maps, and spans over 2,800 miles. It took the Plus.ai truck three days to complete the journey, during which it made a few stops, but never because it couldn’t handle the driving. In fact, there was a safety driver aboard the vehicle, but they never had to take over and intervene for the truck other than during fuel stops and federally mandated breaks. The company said there were zero “disengagements,” where the truck lost control.
Back in March 2017, Plus.ai became one of the first autonomous trucking companies to land a California Autonomous Vehicle Testing License, which is exactly what it sounds like. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, there are now 65 companies that hold one of these permits.
To complete the long trip and deliver the butter before it perished, the truck relied on Plus.ai’s SLAM technology, which is an acronym for its instant positioning and map building solution. That includes a suite of sensors like cameras, lidar and radar, very similar to what you’d see in an Uber self-driving Volvo or an Argo AI Ford Fusion. What stands out is the company’s data fusion system, which combines this information to create a field of front detection that’s over 1,600 meters deep, allowing the truck to see far ahead. At the same time, Plus.ai achieves a wide field of view to help the truck adapt to new road shapes and slopes.
Let’s not forget that the damn thing was pulling around a refrigerated cooler with 40,000—we repeat, 40,000—pounds of butter onboard. The other primary obstacle, beside the perishable goods, is weather. This trip, which took place during the week of Thanksgiving, encompassed 12 states and some pretty inclement conditions, including snow.