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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

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker will not seek re-election in 2022

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) speaking during a press conference in November 2021. Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), a moderate who typically ranks as one of the nation's most popular governors, said Wednesday that he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito (R) will not seek third terms in 2022.

Why it matters: The decision leaves the gubernatorial race wide open and will likely affect multiple down-ballot races next year. Baker was expected to be the front-runner had he joined the race.

3 hours ago - Health

CDC prepares tougher testing rules for international travelers

Travelers with their luggage arrive at a COVID-19 testing location at the airport in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2021. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday night that it is working to impose stricter testing requirements for international travelers due to the spread of the new Omicron variant.

The big picture: The new rules would require all international travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to show a negative test taken a day before their flight to the U.S. Currently, the CDC says fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to show a test taken no more than three days before their departure, AP reports.

Republicans threaten to shut down government over vaccine mandates

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Capitol in November 2020. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate are planning to force a government shutdown Friday to deny funding needed to enforce the Biden administration's vaccine mandates on the private sector, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Congress has until the end of the week to pass a stopgap measure to extend funding into 2022, though objection from a small group of Republicans could shut down the government.

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