March 09–While robot taxi fleets hog the headlines, many experts think a different type of autonomous vehicle may become commercially viable first: self-driving big rigs.
Trucks move more than 70 percent of U.S. freight, but long-haul truckers are in scarce supply, with an aging population, a current shortage of 50,000 drivers and a lack of fresh recruits who want to sign up for long stretches on the road.
Two San Francisco companies, one large (Uber, the world’s most valuable private company) and one small (Starsky Robotics, a 21-person startup) this week discussed ways they’re already hauling cargo autonomously. Each plans for trucks to drive themselves down the highway, but they have a different approach for how the big rigs would get to and from there.
–Starsky, which just closed a $16.5 million funding round, said it completed a fully autonomous 7-mile trip on a Florida highway with no human aboard its Freightliner Cascadia truck cab two weeks ago. It released a video showing the trips from inside the truck cab.
“Our goal is to make unmanned regular service a thing this year,” said Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO and co-founder. His vision: “Trucks with no people in them regularly hauling freight on the road.”
Besides developing autonomous-driving technology, Starsky has created remote-control technology, which is how it steered the demonstration truck on and off the freeway, and how it plans to operate in the future.
Starsky’s plan: Hire truck drivers to sit in a remote control center, using video-game-like controls to navigate trucks from distribution centers to highways and vice versa. The remote operators would also oversee the long-haul part of the trip, helping with lane merges and navigating between different roads, for instance.
“We have more people who want us to haul freight than we have trucks available,” Seltz-Axmacher said. “It’s hard for them to get people to drive trucks.”
What about fuel? There are lots of full-service gas stations for trucks, where attendants not only pump gas but also check tire pressure and oil levels, he said.
Shasta Ventures of Menlo Park and San Francisco led the funding round, which brings Starsky’s total backing to $21 million. “The trucking industry can’t fill all the jobs it has today,” said Rob Coneybeer, managing director of Shasta Ventures, in a statement. “The delivery of goods isn’t going anywhere, but the labor shortage in the industry looms large, threatening its long-term growth.”
Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada all allow driverless trucks, Seltz-Axmacher said. California’s rules for autonomous cars, which recently added a permitting system for cars without drivers, do not cover vehicles larger than 10,000 pounds; the state has said it will soon craft regulations for autonomous trucks. Some self-driving truck cabs have been tested in the state, however.
Starsky has two trucks and four truck drivers, two of whom work from a remote-control center outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; the others are test drivers.
Starsky has “normal truck insurance” it landed via “a long, hard strategic partnership,” Seltz-Axmacher said, declining to name the company or the amount.
–Uber this week said it has been hauling freight in autonomous trucks in Arizona with a backup driver aboard.
Uber calls its approach, which it documented in a video, a transfer hub model. Cargo is loaded into the trailer of a conventional truck, then driven by a human to a transfer hub where that trailer is attached to a self-driving truck for the long-haul freeway part of the trip. Conversely, near the destination, the self-driving truck goes to another transfer hub, where the trailer is again transferred to a conventional truck for a driver to take it to the delivery point.
“This a big step forward in self-driving truck technology, and the future of the freight industry at large,” Uber said in a statement.
A San Mateo startup called Embark has described a similar approach to self-driving trucking but with drivers hopping in and out, rather than the truck trailers being switched. In its vision, the 18-wheelers get driven to transfer spots near the side of the highway, then take off on their own. At journey’s end, they pull off to a roadside stop and a driver hops aboard to pilot them to their destination.
Uber got into autonomous trucking via its acquisition of self-driving truck startup Otto, a deal that led to
a trade-secret lawsuit
filed by Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet. The companies
settled that lawsuit
Otto did a demonstration haul of Budweiser beer in 2016 with a truck that piloted itself 120 miles down a Colorado highway while a driver relaxed in the back.
Besides autonomous truck driving, the company created a division called Uber Freight to match truck drivers to loads.
Plenty of other companies including Tesla, Volvo, Daimler and Peterbilt, are working on self-driving trucks. Mountain View’s Peloton has developed another approach, platooning, in which one or more trucks (with or without drivers) follow a lead truck with a human driver.
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @csaid
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