U.S. Xpress helps test new automated driving technology along world's first autonomous freight network

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / U.S. Xpress CEO Eric Fuller poses for a portrait at the company's headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

TuSimple, a self-driving startup business operating in the United States and China, is opening what it calls the world's first "Autonomous Freight Network" under a partnership announced Wednesday with major trucking firms, including the Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress.

The new 1,100-mile network along a highway corridor from Phoenix to Houston will test level-4 autonomous trucks that employ technology sensors and controls to improve gas mileage and reduce accidents. U.S. Xpress will help broker and provide carrier or freight lanes for other trucks to test out the L-4 autonomous trucks.

The trucks are still driven by human drivers, but the automated features add additional efficiency and security while on the highway.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a nationwide transportation network consisting of mapped routes connecting hundreds of terminals to enable efficient, low-cost long-haul autonomous freight operations," said Cheng Lu, president of the San Diego-based TuSimple. "By launching the AFN (Automated Freight Network) with our strategic partners, we will be able to quickly scale operations and expand autonomous shipping lanes to provide users access to autonomous capacity anywhere and 24/7 on-demand."

The new network is being supported by UPS, Penske and food-service McLane along with U.S. Xpress and will roll-out in three phases over the next four years when it should be in operation in 48 U.S. states and, pending development and regulatory approval, ultimately lead to driverless trucks.

Eric Fuller, president of U.S. Xpress, said TuSimple "is the most innovative and advanced" in developing autonomous technology in trucks.

"We waned to be at the forefront of any technology as it relates to the tractor that provides safety, will improve our service to our customers and will improve efficiency for our fleet," Fuller said. "We believe this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime technologies that really is transformative and will change the industry for the better and we want to be involved in that."

U.S. Xpress operates about 7,000 trucks and 18,000 trailers and is one of America's biggest long-haul truck carrier.

For now, TuSimple's technology enhances the human driver in the cab. TuSimple currently uses a driver and engineer on each truck.

Justin Harness, chief revenue officer at U.S. Xpress, Inc., said the Chattanooga trucking company has been working with TuSimple for the past couple of years as a way to improve safety, efficiency and on-time delivery.

"As far we're concerned, we're looking at this as driver-assisted technology and how do we better equip our drivers to provide a better and safer experience and the motoring public," he said. "We don't foresee anytime in the near future where there are trucks are on the road without a driver."

New proprietary software for TuSimple and its customers will monitor on-road performance and location data, high-definition digital route maps and freight terminals at strategic locations. TuSimple will haul revenue-generating loads for UPS and food-service McLane as well as new customer U.S. Xpress on routes throughout the network and Penske will help maintain the trucks.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340