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Your mail might ride in an AV before you do

Illustration of an 18-wheeler with an envelope as the semi-trailer
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In a high-profile pilot along one of America's busiest freight corridors, the U.S. Postal Service is now testing autonomous trucks as a way to deliver mail more cheaply and efficiently.

Why it matters: Self-driving trucks are likely to be rolling down interstates before robotaxis are deployed in urban areas, not only because their driving task is simpler but because they could help solve an urgent shortage of truck drivers. This 1,000-mile pilot, in partnership with AV developer TuSimple, is the first long-haul test of the technology.

Driving the news: Beginning yesterday, TuSimple's self-driving rigs started hauling USPS trailers between the postal service's mail distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas.

  • The 2-week pilot will include 5 round trips along Interstates 10, 20 and 30 through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, all of which have more lenient regulations.
  • The trucks will run 22 hours at a time with a safety engineer and driver on board to monitor vehicle performance and ensure public safety.
  • TuSimple expects the I-10 corridor, which accounts for the largest portion of inter-regional U.S. trade, will be a "sweet spot" for automated trucking, chief product officer Chuck Price tells Axios.

The big picture: The Postal Service lost $3.9 billion in 2018 — its 12th consecutive yearly loss — despite aggressive cost-cutting efforts. Its 5-year strategic plan includes stepping up the pace of innovation, including the use of AV technology.

  • USPS is investigating proposals for how AVs might be used to improve the safety and efficiency of its postal delivery trucks, for example.

The backdrop: TuSimple, based in San Diego and China, has plenty of competition in self-driving trucks. This includes Waymo, Tesla and at least a half dozen startups, plus incumbent giants like Daimler and Volvo.

But with $178 million raised to date at a recent $1 billion valuation and a handful of revenue-generating contracts in Arizona, it appears to be pulling ahead.

  • TuSimple currently has 30 trucks deployed in the U.S. and China, and will have 50 in its fleet by the end of June.
  • Its technology can be integrated into any manufacturer's truck. So far, it's working with Paccar, Navistar and diesel-engine maker Cummins.
  • The company claims a technology edge from a proprietary vision system that can see a kilometer ahead, farther than other driverless tech companies.

What to watch: The U.S. Department of Transportation has cleared a path for autonomous trucks in its AV 3.0 policy guidelines, in part by no longer assuming that a commercial truck driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily on board.

  • And some states — Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas and New Mexico (pending) — already allow for commercial deployment of driverless trucks, TuSimple says.
  • "We have a roadmap to be completely driverless," Price says. "We're not ready. But we have a path to getting to 'driver out'."

Go deeper: TuSimple founder Xiaodi Hou is a charismatic 34-year-old with an ambitious plan to eliminate backup drivers as early as next year, as detailed in this recent Forbes profile.