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China’s Inceptio Technology is one of the very few companies in the world that is developing technology that can make autonomous trucking a reality. Back in April 2020, the start-up made two major announcements – it had raised $100 million and the fact that it had received China’s first A-sample validation for Level 3 autonomous trucks.

In conversation with Auto Futures, CEO Julian Ma says that the company is planning the mass production of its L3 automotive grade autonomous technology, which it developed in collaboration with the leading truck OEMs, by the end of 2021.

“The reason that we started this company is that in the logistics industry, particularly in the intercity long-haul shipping, there is a real opportunity for us to use autonomous driving technology to significantly improve the operating efficiency of today’s fleets,” says Ma.

Inceptio’s target is the massive but highly fragmented line-haul trucking sector in China, which has a market size (annual revenue) of $600 billion.

Ask any logistician and they will attest to the fact that the problems with the trucking sector that Ma highlights are, in fact, ones that logistics experts from around the world have been talking about for a while now.

“Heavy duty truck driving is complicated, with a harsh working environment and requires high skill. Nowadays, driver performance determines fleet operation performance. Operation KPIs like safety, fuel consumption and timeliness depend entirely on the ability and responsibility of the driver.

“We see that the opportunity is real and big. With that in mind, we came up with a triangle business model for the company. First is autonomous driving development. The second is what we call intelligent vehicle engineering, where we integrate our autonomous driving system into a few readily available long-haul trucks in China by partnering with the leading truck OEMs in China. Finally, the third part is the fleet operating unit. This is going to be a big deal and a rather large unit for Inceptio,” he notes.

It’s planning to start the volume production of L3 level autonomous trucks by the end of 2021. “We’ll start with a few thousand trucks, and over the years, this will grow to maybe 50,000 or 100,000 trucks across China, building a nation-wide robo-trucking network.” 

Julian At Waic

Reducing the Total Cost of Ownership

As our conversation progressed, Ma spoke about the autonomous technologies that the company was currently building. Inceptio is starting with the technically feasible L3 with the aim of fundamentally transforming truck driving as we know it today and solving certain critical structural deficiency.

For instance, the action of driving a truck is replaced by robot monitoring with very occasional intervention. This also means that the computer units replace the driver in determining fleet operation performance. Moreover, L3 brings down fuel and labour cost, alleviates the challenge of driver shortage and achieves economies of scale for the fleets.

As Inceptio upgrades its autonomous driving to L4 or L5 in future, drivers can be completely replaced by technology, which will further reduce Total Cost of Ownership by about 30%.

Open Road Test

Accelerating the Commercialisation of Autonomous Trucking

On the development side of things, Inceptio self-develops full-stack autonomous driving software and hardware. This includes the self-development of full stack software and on-board computing platform ADU.

The company’s software algorithms have proven to be capable under complex road conditions and severe weather conditions in China. Its self-developed autonomous driving unit features high computing power and full redundancy. In fact, as part of its core algorithms, Inceptio has developed world-leading ultra-long-range 3D sensing technology.

Inceptio took the covers off some of these innovations at this year’s World Artificial Intelligence Conference, where it announced three of its latest solutions for autonomous driving – the record breaking ultra-long range 3D precise sensing technology, the self-developed Autonomous Driving Unit (ADU) Inceptio M51 and the demo truck for L3 mass production co-developed with SINOTRUK.

“On one hand, we have invested heavily in the R&D of the full stack autonomous driving software and hardware, on the other hand, we firmly cooperate with OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers towards mass production,” says Ma.

SINOTRUK isn’t the only leading brand that Inceptio has partnered with, it also boasts of an active collaboration with Dongfeng Commercial Vehicles. Their agreement facilitates contract manufacturing co-operation of L3 trucks with both these Chinese marquees.

The jointly designed and calibrated trucks come with a pre-installed autonomous unit. Inceptio is the front-runner in productization and all their products are in accordance with automotive-graded and volume production standards.

In December 2018, Inceptio and its partners together established the Joint Innovation Centre of Line-Haul Logistics to work towards the commercialisation of autonomous trucking. Current members include leading OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, logistics companies, technical partners, HD Map providers, universities and research institutions.

It has been recognized as an influential alliance in the line-haul logistics autonomous driving industry and plays a vital role in gathering industry support and accelerating the commercialization of autonomous trucking technology.

Lng Truck

Nobody wants to be a truck driver, so the industry is facing a universal challenge of shortage of skilled labour.

For Ma, the future of the logistics industry is heading towards a robo-trucking network that integrates trucking service, autonomous driving and new fuel – a solution that Inceptio Technology wants to be the first to provide.

But I was curious to know if he sees Intelligent Logistics technologies striking a balance with the traditional logistics industry, or a complete disruption of the entire industry.

“Actually, we don’t view the logistics industry as being very traditional. I will say, however, that it is still a labour-intensive industry. It’s an industry that is highly dependent on technology and financial leverage. These are actually the driving forces for the logistics industry to move forward. Autonomous driving is part of it. We see that over the last 5 years, the logistics industry has reached a stage, where all of the traditional equipment and the traditional ways of improving human efficiency and flexibility have reached a limit.

“The next stage to unlock the productivity bottleneck can only be through some sort of artificial intelligence in this industry. It is about autonomous driving, about robots. It can only be achieved by deploying a large number of robots because of the severe shortage of human labour in this industry.”

“Nobody wants to be a truck driver, so the industry is facing a universal challenge of shortage of skilled labour. Autonomous driving plays an indispensable role in bringing the industry to the next level,” concludes Ma.

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