Sending a truck trundling down a highway without a human aboard would constitute a major development for most autonomous vehicle companies. For Plus, it's less a milestone and more a milepost.
A self-driving big rig operated by the company drove a 20-mile stretch of the Wufengshan highway near China's Yangtze River delta last month, the company's first such truck demonstration conducted in China.
Plus CEO David Liu welcomed the development, but in an industry prone to hype, was more circumspect in declaring it some sort of feat.
"I think this showcases that, you know, the future is kind of here," he told Automotive News. "But there is still a lot of work to be done."
A video of the demonstration showed the tractor-trailer changing lanes and showcased the Level 4 automated technology at work. Plus had obtained a special permit from the local government to conduct the demonstration.
Demonstrations are nice, but for driverless technology to progress to the point of widespread commercialization, Liu says maturity is required across the software, hardware and regulatory fronts. It's a clear-eyed assessment from the CEO of one of the companies expected to lead that commercialization.
With $520 million in funding to date, Plus, formerly known as Plus.ai, is a well-funded competitor in the crowded autonomous truck realm. Companies such as TuSimple, Kodiak Robotics, Waymo, Aurora and others are all seeking a piece of a market that consulting firm PitchBook estimates will be worth $166.8 billion in 2035.
Unlike the rest, Plus remains an anomaly in that it's charted an evolutionary path toward that future. Others are developing Level 4 automated systems – those which require no human oversight and operate in specific areas. Plus has developed an advanced driver-assist system that augments the safety and performance of a human driver.
"Today, since there's a human driver, they're really the last line of defense in that the driver can monitor the performance of the hardware system," Liu said. "Is the tire OK? Is your brake system working? When we apply that same autonomous technology, the driver can monitor the overall system."
Can a system built around supporting a human driver evolve into one that eliminates the human driver? Plus is banking on the answer being yes, and it already has firm business attached to the first part of that equation.
In February, the company started deliveries of trucks with these driver-assist systems, called PlusDrive, as part of its joint venture with Chinese truckmaker FAW. Mass production of trucks outfitted with PlusDrive is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year. Amazon is an early customer, and according to Bloomberg, is interested in acquiring 20 percent of Plus.