An Nvidia VP reveals why the chip-maker invested in self-driving truck startup TuSimple

L4_AutonomousTruck_2TuSimple has raised around £650 million.TuSimple

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  • Nvidia invested in the autonomous-truck startup TuSimple in 2017.
  • Nvidia VP Jeff Herbst said the company was impressed by TuSimple's technology, strategy, and team.
  • Though TuSimple is competing with the likes of Waymo and Aurora Innovation, Herbst said the startup appears to have "escaped from the pack."
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TuSimple has caught the attention of the trucking and logistics industries with its plans to develop an automated-driving system for semi-trucks. Founded in 2015, the startup is carrying packages for UPS and has partnerships with Navistar, Penske, and US Xpress. Though TuSimple has more competitors than it did five years ago, the company believes its head start on rivals like Waymo, Aurora Innovation, and Ike (when it comes to focusing on trucks, anyway) has allowed it to build a lead over them.

Jeff Herbst, the vice president of business development at Nvidia, a TuSimple supplier and investor, agrees. "They seem to have escaped the pack," he said. In an interview with Business Insider, Herbst explained why Nvidia decided to invest in TuSimple and why he believes the startup has a bright future.

Nvidia declined to disclose the size of its investment. Here's what Herbst said.

Industry-leading technology

L4_AutonomousTruck_1 TuSimple.TuSimple

Herbst said TuSimple's technology appeared to be "incredibly good" when he first met with the company, and that hasn't changed, as Herbst believes TuSimple has better tech than any other company that's developing self-driving-semis. He highlighted the startup's long-range perception system, which he said is particularly important for a semi-truck since it can't stop as quickly as a car.

TuSimple found the right balance between cameras and lidar sensors, which bounce beams of light off nearby objects to measure how far away they are, Herbst said.

A wise strategy

TucsonFacility TuSimple.TuSimple

TuSimple was one of a small number of autonomous-vehicle companies that were focusing on trucks when Herbst first met with them. The decision to focus on big rigs instead of consumer vehicles was smart for two reasons, Herbst said. First, building an automated-driving system for trucks is easier than doing the same for consumer vehicles because trucks tend to drive along fixed routes on highways, which limits the number of unexpected situations they might encounter.

Second, TuSimple's technology has obvious benefits for potential customers in the trucking industry, who often making slim margins and count drivers among their biggest costs. The fact that TuSimple's competition -- which now includes Waymo, Aurora Innovation, Ike, and Kodiak Robotics -- has grown since TuSimple's 2015 founding is evidence that the company identified a promising opportunity, Herbst said.

A founder with energy and vision

Xiaodi Hou TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou.Vaughn Ridley/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

Herbst said he was impressed with the energy and vision of TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou, as well as the team he and co-founder Mo Chen had assembled. Herbst also got the sense that Hou wouldn't be too stubborn.

If it made sense to tweak the company's business plan, Herbst was confident Hou would do so. "I had the confidence that he was going to be able to pivot the company in whatever way needed to be done," Herbst said. Are you a current or former TuSimple employee?

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