Profile of autonomous trucking company TuSimple, which is valued at $1.1B and claims it has developed a proprietary vision system that can see a kilometer ahead (Alan Ohnsman/Forbes)

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Southeast of Tucson’s airport, tucked into a patch of Sonoran Desert dotted with cholla cactus and paloverde trees, is a sand-colored industrial building with a horizontal emerald-green slash over the entry doors. Only when a Peter­bilt semi-truck loaded with cameras and sensors rumbles out does a visitor get any hint of the technological revolution brewing within. 

TuSimple cofounder Xiaodi Hou established this depot last year to test the company’s self-driving big rigs on paid runs, the next step in commercializing an autonomous system for the $700 billion trucking market. (The trucks currently operate with a safety driver and an engineer on board; Hou wants to start making runs “driver out” next year.) 

TuSimple isn’t the only startup focused on driverless trucks. Embark Trucks, Ike, Starsky Robotics and Kodiak Robotics, all based in the San Francisco Bay Area, are racing to develop their own autonomous big rigs, but TuSimple is on the fast track. Hou, a 34-year-old computer scientist, has raised $178 million for the San Diego startup at a $1.1 billion valuation, making it the first self-driving trucking unicorn and giving it more than three times the war chest of Embark, its closest startup rival. The cash pile gives it