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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Last week, for likely the first time, a heavy-duty commercial truck drove for 9.4 miles on the Florida Turnpike with no one inside. The "driver" was 140 miles away, operating the rig remotely.

The big picture: Automated freight delivery is expected to begin long before self-driving cars are here, and at least a half dozen truck companies are working on the technology, with tests in various stages of development. Starsky Robotics' Florida demonstration was believed to be the first unmanned, high-speed test of a heavy-duty commercial truck on a public highway.

Why it matters: The U.S. is experiencing a severe shortage of truck drivers — as many as 175,000 by 2026, according to the American Trucking Associations. Companies like Starsky Robotics hope they can address the shortage by making the jobs less taxing.

"The problem is there aren't enough people willing to spend a month at a time in a truck."
— Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Starsky co-founder

To make the job more appealing, self-driving truck start-up TuSimple even helped create an autonomous driving certificate program at Tucson's Pima Community College to teach truck drivers how to train, operate and monitor autonomous truck systems closer to home.

Instead of aiming for an AV moonshot — an autonomous truck that makes all the driving decisions without any human intervention — Starsky says it's taking a more practical approach that combines highway automation with teleoperation, allowing remote drivers to navigate trucks between distribution centers and the highway.

Details: With no one inside, the Starsky truck navigated a rest area near Orlando, merged onto the highway from the left, kept a speed of 55 mph, changed lanes, and exited the highway on the right through a toll booth.

  • The remote driver — sitting behind 3 computer screens in an office 2 hours away in Jacksonville — used a steering wheel, buttons and foot pedals to maneuver on and off the highway.
  • After he set the speed to 55 mph, the automation took over, with the driver intervening only to order the lane change.
  • In all, the human driver operated the truck for just 0.2 miles, or 2% of its journey, says co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher. "It got pretty boring," he says.

Yes, but: Teleoperation relies on ordinary cellular networks that occasionally lead to communication glitches that could potentially delay remote decision-making.

  • For now, Starsky Robotics trucks are accompanied by chase vehicles in case something goes wrong and a human driver needs to jump into the cab to steer a stopped truck off the highway.

The bottom line: Automated trucking is getting closer, but the instincts and knowledge of human drivers are still needed, even if the humans themselves aren't in the vehicle.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
30 mins ago - World

Biden's blinking red lights: Taiwan, Ukraine and Iran

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Russia is menacing Ukraine’s borders, China is sending increasingly ominous signals over Taiwan and Iran is accelerating its uranium enrichment to unprecedented levels.

The big picture: Ukraine, Taiwan and Iran’s nuclear program always loomed large on the menu of potential crises President Biden could face. But over the last several days, the lights have been blinking red on all three fronts all at once.

Updated 7 hours ago - World

Skripal poisoning suspects linked to Czech blast, as country expels 18 Russians

Combined images released by British police in 2018 of Alexander Petrov (L) and Ruslan Boshirov, who are suspected of carrying out an attack in the in the southern English city of Salisbury using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and also the2014 Czech depot explosion. Photo: Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Czech police on Saturday connected two Russian men suspected of carrying out a poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, with a deadly ammunition depot explosion southeast of the capital, Prague, per Reuters.

Driving the news: Czech officials announced Saturday they're expelling 18 Russian diplomats they accuse of being involved in the blast in Vrbětice, AP notes. Czech police said later they're searching for two men carrying several passports — including two with the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Indianapolis mass shooting suspect legally bought 2 guns, police say

Marion County Forensic Services vehicles are parked at the site of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

The suspected gunman in this week's mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis legally purchased two "assault rifles" believed to have been used in the attack, police said late Saturday.

Of note: The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's statement that Brandon Scott Hole, 19, bought the rifles last July and September comes a day after the FBI told news outlets that a "shotgun was seized" from the suspect in March 2020 after his mother raised concerns about his mental health.

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