Plus COO Shawn Kerrigan disagrees. He says there's a natural "continuum" between the two, which allows the company to cull data from driver-assist deployments and use it to train self-driving systems. But he sees the former ruling the road for the "foreseeable future."
"We're targeting that supervisor level, where the system is driving the truck on the highway, but the driver is supervising throughout that operation," Kerrigan said. "Through that, you get a lot of the benefits of this type of technology."
Investors, which include Guotai Junan International and Wanxiang International Investment, see immediate potential in Plus' short-term approach. In mid-February, the company unveiled a $200 million funding round, which places the Cupertino, Calif., upstart among the more well-funded leaders in the segment. Plus has raised $400 million over its four-and-a-half year history.
Beyond improving driver comfort, diminishing fatigue and striving for safety benchmarks, truck operators can make significant fuel-efficiency improvements with an automated system in active control. The gap between the least-efficient human drivers and the most efficient is approximately 30 percent, Kerrigan said. He believes that by using precise throttle control and knowledge of surrounding traffic and elevation, Plus' driver-assist system can achieve fuel savings of 5 to 10 percent beyond the best human drivers.
The driver-assist technology reaches the road at a critical juncture. The coronavirus has brought renewed appreciation to trucking's role in underpinning essential-goods delivery, with 72.5 percent of all freight transported in the U.S. hauled by the trucking industry, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Plus wants its technology to serve as many markets as possible. While self-driving truck companies have coalesced their testing largely around the Interstate 10 corridor — which runs east and west from Florida to California — the company, founded in 2016, has conducted testing in 14 U.S. states and seven Chinese provinces.
"In order for any system to really be proven safe and robust, it's got to experience a broad range of different conditions," Kerrigan said. "The best way to do that is to get out there and operate in all those different types of conditions."
The latest funding included investments by Chinese automaker SAIC Motor and Full Truck Alliance, a Chinese company sometimes described as an Uber for trucking. Kerrigan says the funding will help Plus expand testing and ramp up production of the automated driving systems, then begin testing in Europe once its deployments in China and the U.S. are underway.
"The thing we're most excited about is that this is really helping to bring this type of technology to trucks today," he said. "Our focus is on deploying real commercial products into trucks this year. … This funding is just going to help us scale up that effort."