Autonomous truck tech start-up Plus was an early innovator in the rapidly evolving world of self-driving vehicles. The company demonstrated a Level 4 autonomous control system in 2016 and quickly focused on trucking as the target market for its vehicle control systems.
In February, 2021, Plus began selling its Level 2 PlusDrive autonomous control system, positioning it in the market as an advanced driver safety system. In the meantime, the company has racked up notable successes, including adding Amazon as a PlusDrive customer, selling systems in Asia and Europe, and forging an OEM relationship with Italian truck builder IVECO.
In this exclusive HDT interview, Plus Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Shawn Kerrigan talks about the pathway his company has followed and how he sees the future of autonomous technology in trucking evolving.
HDT: Early on, the common thinking in the industry was that autonomous trucks would mean completely robotic trucks crisscrossing the country with little or no human interaction at all. But now, it seems like your focus is much more on providing an advanced safety and efficiency system for drivers and fleets.
KERRIGAN: I think the thinking has changed somewhat. If you go back to where we came from, and look to where we’re going with autonomous technology, we were attracted to trucking because there’s such a strong business case for this technology. Our early Level 4 demonstrations were intended primarily to showcase what this technology can do for trucking. And we’ve come market with an autonomous solution that can be applied by fleets today and make a huge difference in their operations – both in terms of safety and a significant boost in fuel economy.
HDT: It’s kind of ironic that a technology that is widely regarded as ultimately taking jobs away from drivers is intensely focused on making drivers’ jobs easier and safer.
KERRIGAN: Well, our system provides drivers with a constant, 360-degree field of view around their truck. And it never gets tired. It never gets distracted. And it makes a big difference in all aspects of drivers’ work and lives. They’re more comfortable while on the job, and less tired when the workday is over. It makes driving a truck easier and safer. And so we feel that PlusDrive is a system that can encourage more people to come into trucking as drivers and stay in those jobs longer.
HDT: And there are advantages for fleets as well, correct?
KERRIGAN: Yes. Outside of a massive improvement in safety, the 10% improvement PlusDrive delivers in fuel economy is the most obvious advantage from a fleet perspective. It’s almost a true plug-and-play system that can be installed in about nine hours. And it doesn’t require daily or routine maintenance once its installed on a truck. There was a lot of shock and awe when the first autonomous trucks appeared. Naturally, there was a lot of skepticism and hesitation that went along with that. But we feel like we have a Level 2 system that is easy to learn, easy to use, and is a great way for fleets and trucking in general to get acquainted with autonomous technology and what it can do.
HDT: It seems obvious after my test drive that “even” a Level 2 autonomous control system like PlusDrive offers clear safety benefits for drivers. Do you think its reasonable to press regulatory agencies like the Federal Motor Safety Administration for some sort of autonomous endorsement on a CDL? Maybe grant extended hours of service for drivers’ whose electronic data records show the truck was driven in autonomous mode for most of a day? That would be a huge incentive for fleets to move to this technology faster.
KERRIGAN: It’s something we’re looking into. We see this as a technology that boosts safety and helps drivers get home at night. I thing things like an HOS extension will come in time. But we need the data to prove that our technology can allow that safely. We are talking with regulatory agencies and gathering data now.
HDT: You struck a deal with Amazon early on – which was a major coup considering how innovative a company it is. What can you tell us about that relationship?
KERRIGAN: Not much, frankly, because of the none-disclosure agreements we’ve signed with them. What I can tell you is we are focused on finding partners around the globe that we can collaborate and partner with to advance this technology and help it gain acceptance worldwide. Our relationship with Iveco is a perfect example of that. I hope that potential partners see that we are focused on delivering value for our customers and want to work with us because of that.
HDT: Going for a ride-and-drive in a PlusDrive-equipped truck certainly goes a long way toward understanding this technology. What can fleets do if they’re interested in seeing it for themselves?
KERRIGAN: Reach out to us via our website, go for a demo ride and experience the technology. It’s really as simple as that. Large fleets are interested in autonomous technology because they share common challenges: High driver turn over, a need for improved safety and better fuel economy. Our position is that automation is a new technology that can help them with those problems. It hits all of those pain points, while giving them a powerful new tool to attract, recruit and retain drivers.
HDT: What about fleets worried about this being a complex, new technology and getting service when there’s a problem?
KERRIGAN: We have our partnership with Velociti which is a big boost for installations. They can be done on a truck in about nine hours. And we’re building out a lot of training resources so that we’ll be able to help fleets train their trainers and get drivers educated on how to use PlusDrive. Beyond that, our system is self-calibrating and self-diagnosing when there’s a problem. If service is needed, it’s robust and modular in design. Issues can often be resolved by simply swapping out a component like an electronic control module or a sensor. And if the system isn’t getting the data it needs to operate correctly, it’s not going to work. So you don’t have to worry about the system acting on bad data.
HDT: My final question is one that I get asked all the time – as I’m sure you do. When can we expect to see Level 4 and Level 5 – truly driverless – autonomous trucks working day-to-day for fleets?
KERRIGAN: Everybody has an opinion. But nobody really knows. But it is coming. Still, I think that for a very long time, autonomous technology is mainly going to be focused on helping human drivers be safer and work more efficiently. When fully driverless trucks do arrive, they’ll go to work in narrow market segments and in specific geographic regions – the American Southwest, for example. So, for the foreseeable future, we see our approach to autonomous technology as something that really works well for trucking with human drivers behind the wheel.