Unmanned fully autonomous trucks are finally seeing the light of dawn
The U.S. trucking industry is going through a series of disruptions over the last few years, both through technology and through operational regulations. It is common knowledge that truck drivers are hard to come by these days, and with regulations like the ELD mandate, the industry might run the risk of losing potential millennial drivers to the allure of other uncomplicated jobs.
Any discussion over driver shortage would eventually have to contend with the elephant in the room – autonomous trucks. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into making autonomous trucking a reality, especially in the technology-obsessed Silicon Valley.
Starsky Robotics, a company based in California, has successfully finished a test run of 7 miles with a fully unmanned autonomous truck – without a safety driver behind the wheel or an engineer on the sideline. “Ours was a truly driverless vehicle, and to our knowledge, we are the only people who have done a test like that,” said Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO, and co-founder of Starsky Robotics. Incidentally, this puts their test run in the Level 4 category or higher on the SAE automation levels, making this a milestone in the autonomous technology segment.
The company has seen a lot of progress since it was founded over two years ago. “The first thing we built was a robust robot that would be able to remote control drive – first a rental car and eventually a truck – around the parking lot,” said Seltz-Axmacher. “In August 2016, we drove a truck around the truck yard, moved trailers for money with no person sitting behind the wheel.”
The company then progressed over time to start driving autonomously on the highway and hauled freight on a truck that drove itself for about 130 miles out of the total journey of 180 miles. “By April 2017, our autonomous system was stable enough for regularly using it to haul freight on the highway. We worked from April until September to integrate everything together,” said Seltz-Axmacher.
In September, the company had successfully finished a full end-to-end test, without a driver on the vehicle in the entirety of the test. The vehicle was remotely driven from the parking lot onto the highway, driving on autonomous mode for 10 miles on the highway, after which a highway interchange was performed via remote control. Once back on the highway, the truck drove on autonomously for another 50 miles, before coming off the road and to the parking lot with the help of remote navigation.
Seltz-Axmacher asserts that this is the longest end-to-end autonomous trip ever performed by a truck. Buoyed by the success of the September test, the company used one of its trucks to help aid the recovery efforts post Hurricane Irma, hauling water over 68 miles from one end of the state to the other end without human intervention.
“The highway portion of the test is relatively the easy part of autonomy, and it is easy to manually drive a vehicle on the highway and turn it into autonomous mode,” said Seltz-Axmacher. “But the problem is you still need a person in the truck for that. That was why our September haul is important.”
Starsky Robotics is now working on building its safety architecture and the controllability of how the system reacts when there is a failure, to make sure such failures do not end up being catastrophic on the road. Over several unmanned test runs, the company was able to hard test every component of the system to check for possible failures and to see how the system would recognize those failures and raise a safety warning. The system has been programmed to come to a stop in light of a warning, thereby ensuring safety.
Though a lot of the industry-leading OEMs look to be intensely working on creating their own line of autonomous vehicles, Seltz-Axmacher believes the situation might just be a mirage. “The big OEMs are low-pedaling it and are doing the bare minimum that they can to make an announcement and increase shareholder value,” he said. “I think they are not actually trying to do it, and part of the evidence for that is that no one else has done an unmanned run.”
Uber, for instance, was in the news recently for hauling freight across Arizona on automated trucks, but with a driver in the seat for safety purposes. Embark, another leader in the space also runs autonomous trucks with a driver behind the wheel. This puts Starsky Robotics clearly in the lead in the race for total automation, having tested unmanned trucks on the highway.
A lot of commercial demand has been generated in the autonomous space due to a dearth of drivers, and Starsky Robotics has more demand from companies who are willing to work with them, than the robots they can supply at the moment. The company recently raised a Series A round of $16.5 million and is looking to commercially deploy their unmanned trucks to haul freight this year.
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