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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.

Go deeper

Janet Yellen is back

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images

A face familiar to Wall Street is back as a central player that this time will need to steer the country out of a deep economic crisis.

Driving the news: President-elect Joe Biden is preparing to nominate former Fed chair Janet Yellen to be Treasury secretary.

Mike Allen, author of AM
30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Charles Koch: "I screwed up"

In his first on-camera interview in four years, Charles Koch told "Axios on HBO" that he "screwed up by being partisan," rather than approaching his network's big-spending political action in a more nonpartisan way.

Why it matters: Koch — chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, which Forbes yesterday designated as America's largest private company — has been the left's favorite face of big-spending political action.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
2 hours ago - Health

What overwhelmed hospitals look like

A healthcare professional suits up to enter a COVID-19 patient's room in the ICU at Van Wert County Hospital in Ohio. Photo: Megan Jelinger/AFP

Utah doctors are doing what they say is the equivalent of rationing care. Intensive care beds in Minnesota are nearly full. And the country overall continues to break hospitalization records — all as millions of Americans travel to spend Thanksgiving with friends and family.

Why it matters: America's health care workers are exhausted, and the sickest coronavirus patients aren't receiving the kind of care that could make the difference between living and dying.