Automating With Gas: Plus And Cummins Developing Natural Gas Powered Self-Driving Trucks

Automating With Gas: Plus And Cummins Developing Natural Gas Powered Self-Driving Trucks

Self-driving truck developer Plus has announced a new initiative with global engine manufacturer Cummins to develop “the industry’s first driver-in, supervised autonomous trucks powered by natural gas.” Plus says trucks running their Automated Driving System are more fuel efficient due to their AI-enabled fuel optimization algorithms, now expanding beyond diesel to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) engines. Cummins will contribute its engineering expertise and a suite of advanced powertrain features. (Disclosure: I am an Advisor to Plus.)

To a trucking user, CNG vehicles operate much like diesel-powered vehicles with spark-ignited internal combustion engines. The announcement notes that the Cummins CNG engines have been certified to near zero emissions, reducing smog-forming emissions by 90 percent compared to current EPA standards for nitrogen oxide air pollutants. The partners see this providing trucking fleets “an evolutionary path to quickly meet their emissions-reduction and corporate sustainability goals.”

Earlier this month Plus announced a partnership with truck manufacturer Iveco, which claims to offer “the most extensive range of CNG vehicles on the market.”

I expect most advanced truck ADS developers would find it straightforward to interface with CNG trucks as well as the more common diesel trucks, at least in a basic way. But today’s modern engine tuned for optimum fuel economy and minimal emissions is a very complicated beast. I have no doubt there are gains to be made by a close collaboration with an engine maker regarding tuning and optimization. “PlusDrive can integrate with any powertrain, whether diesel, CNG, or electric, but we need to do work to tune how PlusDrive optimizes the vehicle fuel usage based on different powertrain characteristics. This is why the collaboration with Cummins is so important,” said Shawn Kerrigan, COO and Co-founder, Plus. The result will be a common interface that works for both Cummins’s diesel and CNG engines with automated trucks.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Silicon Valley, Plus specializes in providing “full-stack self-driving technology to enable large scale autonomous commercial transport.” The company notes they are currently working with some of the leading truck manufacturers, largest shippers, and top fleet operators to begin mass production of its automated driving system. Describing their motivation for the new partnership, Kerrigan said, “Sustainable transportation is good for business and for humankind. This is an extraordinary collaboration that brings together two excellent engineering teams to create an innovative, production-ready solution that will have tremendous business and environmental impact. Working with Cummins on this truly meaningful product is a natural extension of our long-standing partnership.”

Plus will begin mass production of its PlusDrive system this summer, with plans to deploy their system globally across the U.S., China, Europe and other parts of Asia, according to the announcement. Plus says PlusDrive is being piloted by some of the largest truck fleets in the world, demonstrating the key benefits of improved safety, reduced fuel costs, enhanced driver comfort, and reduced carbon emissions.“We have current customer orders for automated trucks with CNG engines since our customers actively invest in sustainable transportation technologies and equipment. Our collaboration with Cummins means fleets will now have even more sustainable options in freight transportation,” said Kerrigan.

What does Plus mean by “driver-in, supervised autonomous trucks?” Information on their website notes that their “PlusDrive” system is designed for driverless operations. To fully validate this system as safe and capable without a driver, they are implementing an early-deployment model in which drivers from customer fleets supervise PlusDrive’s driving on the highway, taking over control as needed. So, the truck is not running in automated mode, it is running a system designed to operate without a driver at some future time. Plus sees this approach as enabling deployment of thousands of trucks near term, which in turn results in collecting hundreds of millions of miles of real-world driving data. Findings from this data are fed into their simulation capability to power a validation process they say is a thorough and effective approach to bring trucks which do not require a driver to market in a timely fashion.

Headquartered in Columbus, Indiana, and over one hundred years old, Cummins Inc. products include diesel, natural gas, electric and hybrid powertrains, as well as a wide range of powertrain-related components.

“Integrating Cummins’ state-of-the-art natural gas-powered engines into Plus’s industry-leading supervised autonomous trucks enables a new kind of transportation solution and offers customers even greater choices to meet their emissions goals. Cummins engines can power nearly every type of vehicle and application globally, so the integration of our natural gas powertrains for autonomous driving applications is a logical next step to provide customers with solutions that align with their specific business requirements,” said J. Michael Taylor, General Manager for Global Powertrain Integration at Cummins.

The Gas Is On

Partnerships and integration with established industry players is now the name of the game for automated driving. In the past year, truck manufacturer Daimler has partnered with Waymo, Traton has partnered with TuSimple, and both Volvo Group and PACCAR have partnered with Aurora, in addition to the Plus-Iveco tie-up. Embark announced this month they have partnered with major fleets, as has been the case with TuSimple for some time. Plus has large fleet partners which have yet to be announced. 

While Plus is the first to announce a partnership specifically with a stand-alone engine manufacturer, several of the truck manufacturers also make their own engines. Truck fleets, the end users, want choice when they purchase trucks. Cummins engines are available on most if not all major truck brands.

This collaboration between Plus and Cummins to develop, validate and introduce a common interface that works for both Cummins’s diesel and CNG engines will be a win for the overall industry. The announcement says that others in the industry can use the same interface to support their adoption of Cummins’ CNG engines.

According to the announcement, Plus and Cummins teams will begin work on the new initiative immediately, noting that this project is an extension of an ongoing collaboration to develop fuel-efficient automated trucks. According to Kerrigan, this is in step with market needs. “CNG is becoming more mainstream as fleets look to reduce their CO2 emissions. Autonomous technology is getting closer to commercialization. Our announcement marks a convergence of these two disruptive trends reshaping trucking — alternative fuel systems and autonomous technologies commercialized together.” The partners say they will bring CNG-powered trucks running the Plus system to market in 2022.

Diesel, gas, electric: whatever it takes to power self-driving vehicles that themselves will power a massive shift in freight movement.

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