On Tuesday, ride-hailing giant Uber announced it was doing a very cool, techno-futuristic thing: starting a commercial delivery service that included letting a truck drive itself 344 miles across Arizona. Of course, a trained safety operator sat behind the wheel the whole time, ready to take over if anything went awry.
Pshaw, says a small startup called Starsky Robotics. In true Florida Man fashion, founder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher decided to do something much bolder and a bit scarier: In mid-February, in the Sunshine State (where regulations are as lax as those in Arizona), he sent his truck down the road for a 7-mile journey—with nobody inside. Now Starsky expects to start making completely driverless deliveries in Florida by the end of 2018, with at least one truck.
Taken together, these two demos offer diverging futures of freight, in which humans play different roles. Uber envisions drivers as bar pilots: They handle the trucks on tricky surface streets from their starting point to the highway, then hop out of the cab and let the machine do the simple long distance hauling on its own. At the end of its journey, the truck exits and meets up with another human, who handles the last few miles to its destination—the way bar pilots guide huge container ships into and out of ports. Trucking becomes a purely local affair, but otherwise looks much like it does today. Silicon Valley startup Embark is going for the same idea, and started shipping refrigerators from Texas to California last fall.
Starsky doesn’t want humans in truck cabs at all. “We want to get people out of the cab because the work is unpleasant and dangerous,” Seltz-Axmacher says. Today’s trucking work, he argues, is bad, with uncomfortable work environments, long hours that leave little time for friends and family, and wages that aren’t high enough to compensate for those downsides. That’s why annual driver turnover in large American fleets hit 95 percent in 2017, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Like Uber and Embark, Starsky’s trucks will handle the highway driving all on their own. But when a human grabs the wheel to negotiate the complex surface streets, they won’t climb into the cab to do it. They’ll work in buildings that look like call centers, monitoring 10 to 30 vehicles per hour via video links and using a videogame-controller-like wheel to take control as needed. (Today, the company employs four truck drivers.)
Driverless taxis may make all the cool headlines as they begin to test around Miami, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. But the $676 billion trucking industry just might stand the gain the most, especially in the short term, from automated vehicles. To go with the driver shortage, Americans are ordering more stuff than ever before (thanks, Amazon). Beyond potential safety benefits (about 4,000 people die in truck-related crashes every year on US roads), there’s a clear economic case for any tech that can make it easier to keep freight flowing.
Which model of robo-trucking the future embraces is probably up to regulators as much as the free market. (Starsky, for its part, just announced a $16.5 million Series A funding round, led by Shasta Ventures.) Today, eight states permit trucks to “platoon”—that is, use sensor integrations and wireless communications to synchronize accelerating and braking between two or more vehicles, so that only one driver (the one in front) has to pay attention at a time. Peloton Technologies, a California company that has embraced platooning, says it will begin to make commercial deliveries this year.
But the federal government has been slower to contemplate rules for automated trucks than it has for passenger vehicles. Final regulations for testing trucks might be months, if not years, away. Robotic semis aren’t just big and scary, after all—they could threaten the jobs of 3 million men and women who do the work today.
In the meantime, Starsky, like Embark and Uber, will begin to deliver real, live freight with automated trucking technology. But the biggest question remains unaddressed: When the robots take the wheel, who will unleash their thunderous honks at America’s children?