October 9, 2019

Plus.ai to pilot autonomous trucks on snowy Minnesota test track

Partnership intended to generate data on self-driving truck performance in winter conditions.

By Ben Ames

As increasing numbers of self-driving truck providers run pilot tests on public roads, California-based vendor Plus.ai has launched a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to measure its vehicles' performance in tough winter conditions.

The deal marks the agency's first partnership with an autonomous trucking company to test on MnDOT's MnROAD cold-weather pavement testing facility, and is intended to gather data to inform public policy discussions, Cupertino, California-based Plus.ai said Tuesday.

That approach could be important in an environment where increasingly mature autonomous driving platforms are being slowed from wide deployment more by resistance from regulatory bodies than by their underlying technology.

Fellow autonomous trucking vendor Kodiak Robotics recently said it had begun making its first commercial deliveries—with a safety driver behind the wheel—but those trips are restricted to Texas, where regulations allow the trucks on the roads. Likewise, Embark Technology said in 2017 it had teamed with Ryder¬†System Inc. to conduct self-driving truck tests in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Providing additional data on the performance of autonomous trucks could help to commercialize them and to broaden the map of regions that allow self-driving vehicles, the company said. 

"Our partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation enables us to test Plus.ai autonomous trucks in all weather environments, particularly across tough winter conditions," Plus.ai COO and Co-founder Shawn Kerrigan said in an email. "More than 70 percent of U.S. roads are in snowy regions, and we see this partnership as a valuable opportunity to inform public policy discussions around autonomous driving, with the ultimate goal of improving safety, efficiency, and viability of autonomous trucking technologies."

Plus.ai has previously tested its vehicles on both closed tracks and public roads in more than a dozen U.S. states, as well as numerous locations in China, Kerrigan said.

The new round of testing in Minnesota will help the company to better understand how its trucks handle winter conditions, which can be particularly challenging when vehicles are loaded with freight and weigh in at up to 80,000 pounds. The program will begin with mapping the MnROAD closed test track, followed by rigorous performance testing of Plus.ai's self-driving trucks, he said.

Plus.ai will provide its Level 4 autonomous driving technology, installed in trucks provided by the automakers Navistar and Paccar. For these tests, a human driver will monitor the truck and can intervene if needed.

Minnesota will also benefit from the opportunity to generate new data on self-driving trucks, regulators said. "As automation and emerging transportation technology evolve, the Minnesota Department of Transportation understands how critical it is to collaboratively share information and expertise with partners like Plus.ai. Learning how these vehicles operate in winter weather helps Minnesota advance safety innovation for everyone in the transportation system," Kristin White, executive director of MnDOT's Office of Connected and Automated Vehicles, said in a release.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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