Autonomous vehicle company Pony.ai is forming a strategic joint venture with Sany Heavy Truck, a subsidiary of Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer Sany Heavy Industry, to create an autonomous truck brand.
The plan is to combine Pony.ai's "virtual driver" with Sany's technical prowess in building heavy-duty trucks to build automotive-grade, self-driving trucks with Level 4 autonomy, which means the vehicles can drive themselves in certain conditions without needing a human to intervene. The JV’s autonomous truck product portfolio will include a mix of "new energy vehicles," like electric trucks, and diesel-powered trucks, the company said.
“This partnership between SANY and Pony.ai is the ultimate collaboration between truck ‘body’ and truck ‘brain’ and thus makes it possible to mass produce high-level autonomous trucks," said Liang Linhe, chairman of Sany Heavy Truck, in a statement.
The JV, which does not yet have a brand name, will begin small-scale deliveries of the robotrucks this year and next, with mass production commencing in 2024, according to Pony. The company expects to reach an annual production of around 10,000 trucks within a few years.
Sany and Pony have already begun road testing the JV's first prototype, which was built on Sany's new EV truck platform, according to Pony. Like all of the JV's future autonomous trucks, the prototype was powered by Pony's Autonomous Driving Controller, which is built on Nvidia's Drive Orin self-driving toolkit.
The move signals that Pony.ai, which is technically headquartered in San Francisco, is investing more time and resources into its operations in China. The startup, which also builds and deploys robotaxis, recently lost its permit to deploy autonomous vehicles with a driver behind the wheel in California. In December 2021, Pony also had its license to test its driverless vehicles in California suspended. In China, however, Pony recently scored a taxi license to operate a commercial robotaxi service in Guangzhou and got a permit to provide driverless ride-hailing to the public in Beijing.
In November last year, Pony.ai had combined its self-driving truck and passenger car R&D teams, prompting at least two key executives from its trucking team to leave in a huff. Sources who spoke to TechCrunch at the time on the condition of anonymity said the startup's U.S.-based trucking operations had been suspended, but that tests continued in China.
Earlier this year, Pony also announced that it had formed another JV with Sinotrans, one of China's leading logistics and freight forwarding companies, to build a smart logistics network featuring autonomous driving trucking technologies. Cyantron, as the JV is called, began operations in April.
Pony said in a statement Thursday that its strategy to unlocking robotrucking is to create partnerships with top trucking and logistics companies to create a framework for future development, so we might expect to see more JVs in the future.