Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Current TuSimple employees discuss their work after mass layoffs

TUCSON, Ariz. — TuSimple leaders asked Charles Minear for his take on which of his electrical engineers at the autonomous trucking startup should be included in a 25% staff reduction in December.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be here,” the director of electrical engineering said.

Minear was one of three employees TuSimple provided for a FreightWaves interview earlier in March at the company’s testing and development site. Chris Hernandez, a senior mechanical engineer, and Amy Ray, a senior operations manager, also participated. None appeared to have rehearsed their answers, responding candidly amid occasional signs of nervousness.

All three are newer hires — Minear at 18 months had the most time on the job. Minear and Ray supervised areas where head count was cut as much as 50% during the December layoff of 350 workers and subsequent business reorganization.

TuSimple was far from an outlier. More than 140,000 technology jobs disappeared in 2022, according to a Crunchbase analysis. An additional 118,000 have been cut through this month.

‘I’ve gone through this and I know how it affects people’

“I’ve worked 40 years in the aerospace and automotive business,” Minear said. “Every one of these companies has had reductions in force, every one of them. So it’s not something that was new to me.”

Minear could have retired. He chose to stay, even with half as many employees reporting to him.

“I’ve gone through this and I know how it affects people. And it’s not easy,” Minear said. “But what’s important is that people get back on their feet as soon as they can. The teams had to adjust. For the most part, we had the right people still on board. As we get focused on what we’re going to try to finish, everybody seems to be in better spirits.”

Coming Thursday: Exclusive interview with former and current CEO Cheng Lu

Ray, who oversees TuSimple’s safety and test drivers, experienced the near-complete practical shutdown of a Texas branch where safety drivers oversaw autonomous freight loads for a variety of customers. TuSimple determined that even though the loads generated revenue, they cost more than they were bringing in.

“We had to make some really hard decisions,” Ray said. “And the thing that I tell people now is we need your input so much more. Every single test that each crew does every day is so much more important now. Your feedback to the developers is even more important now that we have fewer people testing.”

TuSimple returns to startup mentality

In some ways, TuSimple’s reorganization has the company in startup mode again. After its April 2021 initial public offering, TuSimple quickly hired 400 research and development engineers. Even as it burned cash from its billion-dollar IPO proceeds, the company kept adding people, much as many other tech startups did in the days of low-interest rates and easy money.

“The guys that were here before say that that’s kind of going back to the roots,” Minear said.

Cheng Lu, who led the management team until March 2022 and returned in November, saw that the company had become bloated and was pursuing business counter to its goal of commercializing autonomous trucking.

“It is better messaging from the Cheng Lu level on down that it’s just kind of going back to that mentality of a startup, like being scrappier,” TuSimple spokesperson Megan Strader said.

Engineering teams sit shoulder to shoulder

Mechanical and electrical engineers now sit on the same floor. The former first-floor cubicles for mechanical engineers sit empty except for use as hoteling cubes for visitors from the company’s San Diego headquarters or another office.

“We all went upstairs into this corner, and we all sit shoulder to shoulder now and talk all the time,” Hernandez said. “You can easily reel them into conversations that you might need to have. In the past, you’d have these conversations within your group, ‘Somebody should go talk to the EE team.’ Now, Chuck literally sits 15, 20 feet away from me.”

Added Minear: “Decisions are made quicker. You don’t always have an extra layer to go through of management.”

Battling TuSimple’s distractions

Communication with Lu is open, too. On a recent Tuesday, he presented a business update for  two hours to the 120 employees in Tucson. Then he joined them for pizza and salad from food trucks to celebrate TuSimple surpassing 10 million miles of autonomous driving.

Battling distractions like TuSimple’s depressed stock price and recent boardroom drama requires discipline, Hernandez said.

“You can dwell on these things and let it bother you all day long and really worry about it,” he said. “Or you can get to work. Most of the people that I’m interacting with [are] pretty much on that level.”

TuSimple’s goal: Commercialization of driverless truck in 2024

TuSimple’s focus remains on research and development of high-autonomy Level 4 trucks capable of running specific routes without a human on board. The company demonstrated it could do this in an 80-mile pilot run from Tucson to near Phoenix in December 2021.

The plan is to launch one of two freight-dense driverless routes along the same stretch of Interstate 10 in 2024. Even though a partnership with Navistar to build a ground-up truck with TuSimple’s software and sensors dissolved in September, TuSimple has enough experience to add the redundancy components like steering and braking critical to autonomous driving.

“We’re doing simulations, but we’re also capturing our own data with the trucks we already have,” Hernandez said. “So, we’re characterizing our fleet as it stands right now. We’re instrumenting it and capturing a lot of data on the dynamics of the entire truck. And then we take  that data and post-process it into an environment that we can use for analysis.”

Related articles:

With $1B in the bank, reputationally dinged TuSimple looks ahead

Cheng Lu returns as CEO at TuSimple; independent directors dumped

TuSimple watch party for driverless Ghost Rider feat left executives speechless

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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