Jun 26, 2019

Truck driving could soon be a desk job

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.

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