Starsky Robotics ran its first test on public roads of a fully autonomous truck without a human in the vehicle.
The self-driving truck startup drove a heavy-duty commercial truck without a driver for 9.4 miles along a highway in Florida earlier this month.
The vehicle successfully navigated a rest area, merged onto the highway and changed lanes, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Starsky’s chief executive and co-founder wrote in a blog post published Wednesday.
It made most of the journey at 55 mph. The vehicle did not carry a load.
“It went so smoothly that few of the other road users realized that they were a part of making history,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
Starsky, which has raised about $22 million in funding, is taking a unique approach to autonomous trucks. Investors include Y Combinator, Trucks.vc, 50 Years and 9Point Ventures. The company is based in San Francisco.
Freightliner, Volvo Trucks and others also are developing self-driving trucks. But those will operate autonomously in enclosed areas such as ports and mines or will have a safety driver onboard. Much of the trucking industry believes driving without a human on public roads is still years away. There is too much traffic and too many hazards at the start of a route and in the last miles to loading dock.
Starsky addresses that problem by employing remote drivers who guide the truck through congested sections of its journey. The vehicle operates autonomously on the highway.
“We aren’t building fully autonomous trucks designed to operate without any human intervention or relying exclusively on computers to make every driving decision,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
It’s not unlike a truck simulation video game or a remote control car. Sensors and cameras on the truck provide the remote driver with information about the truck’s surroundings and traffic.
“We believe that humans are far better at navigating many of the nuances of driving than even the most advanced computer systems,” Seltz-Axmacher told Trucks.com.
The truck in test was controlled by a remote driver located at Starsky’s teleoperation center in Jacksonville. That was about about 200 miles from the route.
But Starsky still wants to get humans out of the truck. It believes that will drive down costs in the industry and address a recalcitrant shortage of truck drivers. Many truckers are reaching retirement age and few young people see the job as a career. It involves too much time away from home and long periods in an uncomfortable truck cab.
Remote driving addresses those issues.
“The problem is that there aren’t enough people willing to spend a month at a time in a truck, which makes it more important for the solution to be unmanned than purely autonomous,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
As it works to commercialize the remote and autonomous driving technology, 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, which is the industry standard.
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.
The remote driver model is something that companies such as Uber and Waymo should consider as they try to launch robotaxi and robodelivery services, Seltz-Axmacher said.
“Whether it’s AVs designed as urban robotaxis or long-haul trucks to solve the driver shortage, the autonomy industry is only really successful if it can make vehicles capable of driving on public roads fully unmanned,” he said. “Barely a handful companies have ever so much as taken the person out of the vehicle in a parking lot. And to our knowledge, no one had ever driven on a public highway with an unmanned vehicle. Until now.”