Merging company

An inside and on-road look at Plus’ semi-autonomous truck

SAN DIEGO — The display console read “NOT READY” as Guztavo Martinez directed a semi-autonomous Peterbilt truck down Interstate 5 on a surface street one day late last month.

After joining the highway, the driver pressed a button marked “+” on the steering wheel twice. With a chime, Plus Drive, the AV system introduced last year by standalone technology developer Plus, has gone “ENGAGED”.

Martinez’s hands remained on the steering wheel.

“It’s a driving product,” he explained. “The captain of the ship has to be at work all the time. … I am engaged. I use it to do my job, but I’m not [having] the system is doing my job.

Additionally, the trucks don’t drive entirely themselves, but they help with lane changing, braking, and other functions that could ultimately help fleets save fuel. The company is offering fleets a way to upgrade their vehicles with the technology, and big players, including Amazon, are expressing interest.

Martinez, a long-time truck driver who now works for Plus, demonstrated the capabilities of the technology and shared his perspective on the benefits AV trucks offer drivers, haulers and the industry as a whole. transporting cargo on a journey of approximately 14 miles with a Transport Dive reporter.

‘Lane change: initiated’

The brief trip on I-5 began and ended at the San Diego Convention Center, where Plus showcased its technology to the industry at the American Trucking Associations 2022 Management Conference and Expo.

Driver-supervised technology relies on radar and lidar sensors and tiny cameras to perform automated acceleration, braking, lane changing and lane centering.

On the highway, the console display showed vehicles immediately ahead and to either side of the truck.

When Martinez flashed a turn signal, ordering the truck to change lanes, Plus Drive first backed up, highlighting the desired lane in red: a vehicle was already there.

When the car passed, he tried again.

“Lane change initiated,” the system replied. The wheel spun and the truck changed lanes.

The truck is not fully autonomous, however. If the driver lets go of the steering wheel for 15 seconds, the system begins a 15-second countdown before the truck automatically begins to slow down. And the driver has several options – the easiest is a slight swipe of the wheel – to take the reins.

“The driver can take over at any time,” Martinez said.

Deluxe Driver Assistance

Fuel savings and improved safety are among the platform’s other benefits, according to Plus. When traffic slows, the truck’s sensors allow it to start braking sooner than a human driver – especially one stuck in traffic – might otherwise be inclined.

Despite its diverse capabilities, Plus Drive remains much closer to a luxury driver assistance program than an autonomous robot carrying loads without a driver.

But the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is working toward that future, rolling out incremental improvements to its platform and demonstrating them to executives and fleet drivers as technology and regulations slowly advance. towards full level 4 autonomy.

Plus does not publicly disclose the cost of each unit. But it can install its system on its customers’ new Class 8 trucks or retrofit their existing trucks, and the technology has already been deployed by one of the world’s largest logistics players. Amazon ordered at least 1,000 renovations last year.

At a time when the industry is dealing with its second-highest number of vacancies ever, among many other challenges, Plus’ technology is improving the truck driving experience, Martinez said.

Especially in maddening traffic jams, the driver says, “it’s more relaxed.”

“Something That Will Help”

After immigrating to the United States from Mexico at the age of 20, Martinez drove dump trucks, bobtails, 10-wheelers, transfer trucks and even cranes.

The driver was introduced to Plus through a friend, and he shared the initial doubts many drivers have when discussing self-driving trucks.

“We don’t think a computer can do what we do on the road,” he said.

Guztavo Martinez is a driver at self-driving truck technology developer Plus.

Colin Campbell/Dive Transport

As Ambassador Plus, Martinez doesn’t try to convince them otherwise. The technology is not fully autonomous anyway: in its current phase, Plus Drive requires a driver to operate, and its use remains limited to the highway.

Instead, he shares with them how the technology wraps around a driver, automating driving functions – similar to cruise control or shifting advances before it – to make driving easier for the person at the flying.

“They can see it,” Martinez said. “I can open that little gap to make them understand, ‘No, we’re not trying to get rid of the drivers. We are actually building something that will help.