Autonomous Startup Seeks Veteran Drivers to Teach Robot Trucks

June 13, 2019 by Alan Adler, @AlanAdler

Self-driving trucking startup TuSimple is launching a community college certificate program to lure experienced drivers out of the cab and into jobs helping their robotic replacements learn the informal rules of the road.

TuSimple said Thursday it is partnering with Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., to create a program that leads to an Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist certificate.

Arizona has become a testing ground for self-driving vehicles because of its sunny, dry climate. That allows robotic vehicles to operate without having to overcome snow and rain that can obscure road markings.

“This is going to be an area where training will be required to help people understand what is going on inside the vehicle and what is correct and not correct for the vehicle to be doing,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst with Gartner Inc. Only a “relatively small group” of truckers would be needed, he said.

TEST TRUCKS

TuSimple’s test trucks haul freight across three southwest U.S. states. Each truck has an engineer on board. There’s also a safety driver to take over if something goes wrong. It recently completed a two-week test for the U.S. Postal Service hauling mail in self-driving trucks from Phoenix to Dallas.

TuSimple, Starsky Robotics, Embark and Waymo all are testing so-called Level 4 autonomy. Level 4 autonomy describes trucks and cars that can operate without human help in most situations. Daimler Trucks recently bought Torc Robotics to help meet its goal of having Level 4 trucks in production within a decade.

TuSimple Pima Community College

TuSimple and Pima Community College created the program after TuSimple approached the school 10 months ago. (Photo: TuSimple)

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

TuSimple is looking ahead to a time when artificial intelligence is good enough that real-world trucking experience can support machine-learning software.

“This is the basis of what could be a national program,” said Robert Brown, a TuSimple spokesman.

To that end, TuSimple approached Tucson’s largest community college 10 months ago about working together.

“We’re entering an era where education and training providers are going to have to always be adjusting their curriculum to not just meet industry where it is, but prepare for where industry is taking all of us,” said Ian Roark, Pima College vice president of workforce development.

COURSEWORK

Drivers can complete the five-course program in one semester. The courses are introduction to autonomous vehicles, industrial safety, computer hardware components, electrical systems, and transportation and traffic management.

It starts in September.

Program graduates get priority for jobs at TuSimple’s testing and development center in Tucson. TuSimple expects to hire dozens of ex-drivers, Brown said.

TuSimple testing and development center, Tucson

Drivers who complete Pima Community College’s Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist program will get jobs at TuSimple’s testing and development facility in Tucson. (Photo: TuSimple)

STARSKY ROBOTICS

Starsky Robotics is taking a different approach to move drivers off the road and into roles interacting with self-driving trucks. It created a traditional trucking company.

Starsky offers over-the-road trucking jobs that can turn into the role of a safety driver in a self-driving truck after six months. The drivers sleep in hotels instead of trucks for two weeks at a time. Starsky pays them weekly instead of by the mile.

And eventually, these truckers will become remote drivers who guide self-driving trucks on the first and last miles of their routes. These “inside” jobs pay a salary and allow the drivers to go home nightly.

“Driving trucks is extremely tough, and so is finding the right drivers,” said Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, founder and chief executive of Starsky Robotics. But the company has found enough drivers to operate 36 traditional trucks. Combined, the drivers foster “a captive source of safe, experienced and well-trained drivers,” he said.

Both TuSimple and Starsky pitch better work-life balance, fair wages and promotions. They say these are advantages over many traditional long-haul trucking jobs.

The two companies think autonomous trucking can address a shortage of truck drivers made worse by older drivers retiring. Moreover, few young people want to be truckers. The American Trucking Associations predicts a shortage of 175,000 drivers by 2024.

Cyndia Zwahlen May 3, 2019
The Postal Service completed testing new mail truck prototypes in March and expects a request for production by fall but hasn’t announced the winning design.

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