Q&A: Plus.AI Founder and CEO, David Liu, on How Autonomous Trucking Can Change the Future
“Part of providing an end solution means that we need to demonstrate and understand how the technology will evolve. We are addressing this by working hard to identify the problems that we can solve by applying our technology.”
Hemi was an early backer of Plus.AI, a Cupertino-based company developing self-driving technology for the commercial trucking industry. Bloomberg recently reported that Plus.AI is approaching the close of a $200 million round that would value the autonomous transportation company at more than $1 billion. The start-up was founded in 2016 by Stanford classmates and is preparing to launch level 2 trucks with partially automated driving features.
David Liu, founder and CEO of Plus.AI, spoke with Hemi earlier about his perspectives and outlook on the future of autonomous vehicles. Plus.AI is developing autonomous driving solutions powered by deep learning with a goal to mass-produce autonomous trucks for commercial use.
What does the future of autonomous vehicles look like to you?
Autonomous vehicles are going to change the world and save lives. This is going to happen in stages. In the next couple of decades, what you’re going to see will mostly be cars driving on their own. Then, when you think about transportation, you will think about going to some place or going from place to place. You won’t be thinking about driving. At that point, vehicles will simply be tools we use.
It will take some time to get to that point. In the process, autonomous vehicles are going to take different forms. Today, you look at the different levels of autonomy going from level 2 to level 5. Most of the vehicles, or at least the high-end vehicles, have level 2 autonomous vehicle driving functionality — this is more focused on safety features. At some point, we will get to level 3 driving — we will still have drivers, but the machine will do a lot of work for the driver so the driving experience can be less labor-intensive and will be safer.
What are the biggest hurdles to autonomous vehicles becoming mainstream?
The first and greatest hurdle is technology. People have been working on this technology for the past two decades — it’s progressed significantly, especially in the past 5–10 years, but we’re still not there yet. The second hurdle is infrastructure. This is mainly because the road conditions are very different and infrastructure will eventually need to be optimized for autonomy.
The third hurdle is on the regulation side. As a society, people need to get comfortable with driving alongside machines. Currently, there are a lot of questions that are unanswered regarding accidents with autonomous vehicles. Even today, regarding the regulation side, when you use an autopilot or cruise function on the highway, if you get in an accident, is it the driver’s fault or is it the manufacturer’s fault? Those are some of the questions that need to be answered.
Apart from transportation, how do you see autonomous vehicles disrupting other industries?
I think it’s going to completely change all other industries. Transportation is about the movement of humans and goods using vehicles. When you are moving goods, then you have to consider logistics. The logistics industry will be revamped and if you change how goods are moved, you’re going to eventually touch upon how goods are manufactured and where they’re going to be manufactured. This can then change how commerce will be done.
There are discussions on manufacturing directly for consumers — individual orders can be sent to a factory so goods can be made on a personalized basis and then shipped to the consumer’s home. That will all become possible if we can develop an efficient transportation and logistics system of a larger magnitude than what we have today. This has the potential to completely change how society functions in the future.
How will infrastructure need to adapt? Are there certain road structures/layouts that would best support full autonomy?
I think before we get to complete autonomous driving, the infrastructure needs to change accordingly. Today’s highway systems and road systems are very different from a hundred or two hundred years ago when there were only carriages and horses. We will come to a time when most of the cars on the road are self-driving, and I can imagine the roads will be much different, from how we design intersections to the road signs needed and many other factors. Our current roads are made for human driving. For autonomous driving, it will be different and optimized for that purpose particularly.
What is the current issue in the industry that you are helping to address and how are you doing so?
To get to autonomous driving, there are many problems to solve, from conception to localization and execution. Part of providing an end solution means that we need to demonstrate and understand how the technology will evolve. The first order of business is to understand that the technology champions a broad and orthogonal effect on the space. We need to figure out how we’re going to make the world better today, and in the next year — not just a decade from now. We are addressing this by working hard to identify the problems that we can solve by applying our technology.