Commercialization of autonomous trucks is gaining impetus as tech giants and self-driving startups are ramping up efforts to conduct road tests and mass-produce autonomous heavy-duty trucks, industry experts said.
Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd announced in June that it had received approval to test its Level 4 self-driving trucks, without a driver behind the steering wheel, on open roads in Deqing county, Zhejiang province.
Level 4 means a high level of autonomy, in which a vehicle can drive by itself under most circumstances without a human backup driver. It is one level below Level 5, which is generally described as full automation, able to drive by itself in all conditions.
The autonomous trucks, known as Damanlv, which have been developed by Alibaba Damo Academy, a science and technology research institute under Alibaba Group, will carry out road tests in designated areas in Deqing, including some high-speed sections.
"Alibaba has always focused on L4 autonomous driving. The road test license issued by the authorities in Deqing will accelerate the research and development progress of our L4 self-driving trucks and help us expand autonomous driving to open roads and high-speed trunk lines," said Chen Junbo, technical director at the autonomous driving laboratory of Damo Academy.
The worldwide self-driving truck market may have generated as much as $1 billion in revenue in 2020 and is further expected to generate $12.67 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10.4 percent from 2020 to 2025, according to Allied Market Research, a global consulting services provider.
"Road conditions that autonomous trucks face are simpler than those faced by self-driving, passenger-carrying taxis, given that there are no traffic lights or passengers once they get on expressways," said Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Automobile Industry Innovation Research Center at North China University of Technology in Beijing.
Zhang said autonomous trucks can be equipped with more advanced sensors and radars, and the large-scale application of self-driving trucks in logistics will reduce delivery costs, save workforce expenses, enhance operational efficiency and make freight transportation safer.
Self-driving startup Pony.ai said in July that it will establish a joint venture with Sany Heavy Truck, a subsidiary of Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer Sany Heavy Industry, to develop L4 autonomous trucks for logistics transportation.
The JV plans to start small-scale deliveries of the self-driving trucks this year. Mass production of the L4 trucks is forecast to commence in 2024, with annual production expected to surpass 10,000 units within a few years, said Pony.ai.
The first prototype of the autonomous truck was built on Sany's new energy truck platform and has already conducted road testing. The JV's autonomous truck portfolio will include a mix of vehicles based on new energy and conventional fuels, with the aim of increasing the proportion of new energy trucks in the future, the company said.
According to Pony.ai, autonomous trucks can save 10 to 20 percent of the energy used by conventional trucks. In addition, with the gradual expansion of the venture's new energy products, by 2030, its trucks will reduce carbon emissions by more than 1 million metric tons.
According to a report by Beijing-based think tank EqualOcean, the number of heavy-duty trucks in China's logistics system is expected to reach 6.27 million in 2030, with revenue from autonomous trucks hitting 853.9 billion yuan ($125.7 billion) by then.
In December, Pony.ai announced that its truck brand－PonyTron－had successfully demonstrated its capabilities during the country's first test of high-level autonomous trucks on open expressways.
The vehicles, which are tested regularly, are autonomous-driving trucks developed on the FAW Jie-fang J7 vehicle platform, which is mainly used for logistics and is able to achieve L4 autonomous driving on busy expressways.
In addition, Plus.ai, an autonomous trucking startup, completed a driverless L4 truck demonstration on the Wufengshan highway in Jiangsu province in June 2021. It has collaborated with FAW Jiefang, China's oldest and largest truck manufacturer, to develop autonomous trucks.
Plus.ai, an international company based in Silicon Valley in the United States with research and development based in China, is developing a low-cost, high-performance and complete system and "full-stack", L4 autonomous driving technologies.
At present, autonomous trucks are mainly tested or applied in relatively simple scenarios, such as ports, mines and some closed roads, said Jiang Zheng, an expert at the R&D center affiliated with Guangzhou Automobile Group.
"In addition, logistics companies see rising demand for autonomous trucks, which increase work efficiency and save labor costs," said Jiang, adding that he is bullish on prospects for autonomous trucks.