TuSimple has started testing its self-driving truck tech in Japan

TuSimple, a publicly traded company developing self-driving trucks, is doing regular test runs on an expressway in Japan, marking its entrance into the island nation, the company said Tuesday.

The testing on Japan’s Tomei Expressway, which connects Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, suggests TuSimple is doubling down on its Asia-focused business. Back in December, the company shared with TechCrunch plans to divest its China-based business after facing regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. over ties with China. TuSimple backpedaled in May, and said it planned to continue operations in the region.

Japan represents a ripe marketplace for TuSimple as the country opens up to autonomous vehicle testing. The Japanese government amended a law in April 2022 to allow for Level 4 autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads, the government’s answer to a chronic labor shortage caused by Japan’s aging population. (Level 4 is a designation by the Society of Automobile Engineers that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.)

Earlier this year, financial newspaper Nikkei reported that Japan plans to launch a self-driving lane on certain sections of the New Tomei Expressway, which runs parallel to the Tomei Expressway, by 2024 and will allow commercial operation of L4 autonomous trucks in 2026. The lane will reportedly be fitted with sensors and cameras to monitor road conditions, as well as 5G networks.

“Self-driving technology is a promising solution to the driver shortage issue that Japan’s logistics industry faces,” said Cheng Lu, president and CEO at TuSimple, in a statement. “We aim to actively build business partnerships with local companies and develop the technology that will meet local customer demand.” 

TuSimple positions itself as a U.S.-based company, but it has subsidiaries in China, Hong Kong and Japan, according to regulatory filings. The company’s work in Japan began in 2021 when the company completed a series of safety validation and testing work on its AV system using a local Japanese OEM’s truck. The regular testing runs on the Tomei Expressway began in January 2023, according to the company.

TuSimple intends to start testing its autonomous driver on the 310 miles between Tokyo and Osaka this year as it prepares to remove the driver for testing next year. At the end of 2021, TuSimple successfully completed a “driver-out” run on an 80-mile stretch between Tucson and Phoenix.

The company is currently working with two trucks, but hopes to increase the fleet size to four units by the end of this year. TuSimple said it would have details to share about its OEM partner soon.

Most of TuSimple’s testing has taken place in Arizona and China. Japan represents the first time TuSimple tests its technology in a region the drives on the left-hand side of the road, which means the company has to adapt its technology to the different rules and behaviors. Additionally, the local authorities place no limit on times of day for testing, so TuSimple has been able to validate its driver in Japan during day and night hours.

TuSimple didn’t explain the significance of its new focus on Japan, only saying it expects to start full-scale commercial operations after testing and validation of its safety and business model. While TuSimple is still testing in Arizona, the move in Japan could signal a move away from U.S.-based operations, where TuSimple has run up against a plethora of roadblocks to its aforementioned goal of commercializing by 2024.

Last month, TuSimple laid off about 330 employees, all of whom worked for TuSimple in the U.S., in order to preserve cash and stay in business. That restructuring followed a 25% reduction in workforce in December, which also only affected U.S. employees.

Those layoffs occurred a couple of weeks after TuSimple’s deal to co-develop purpose-built autonomous semi trucks with Navistar fell apart, which has put the company’s other commercial partnerships in jeopardy. Last year, TuSimple had close to 7,000 reservations for Navistar-built trucks, including from customers like DHL Supply Chain. As part of that deal, TuSimple had promised to deliver 100 autonomous trucks to DHL, with the first scheduled for delivery next year. TuSimple has neither confirmed nor denied the status of that deal, nor has it disclosed a new OEM partnership to develop self-driving trucks.

TuSimple is also facing a delisting from the Nasdaq for failing to file its last two quarterly reports on time. The company got a temporary reprieve from the stock exchange, pending a hearing June 22. TuSimple did not comment on the delisting or the status of its tardy earnings reports.

This article has been updated with new information from TuSimple.