Starsky Robotics is a tiny autonomous trucking startup that plans to take on global truck manufacturers including Daimler, Volvo and Volkswagen’s Traton subsidiary.
The San Francisco company scored points in the race to develop robotic trucks in June when it became the first company to test a fully autonomous truck on public roads in the U.S. without a human in the vehicle.
It drove a heavy-duty commercial truck without a driver for 9.4 miles along a highway in Florida earlier this month. But there are still human drivers involved. Starsky’s plan calls for remote drivers to maneuver the trucks through high traffic and tricky areas onto and off major highways.
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.
The vehicle operates autonomously on the highway.
Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder and chief executive of Starsky Robotics talked to Trucks.com about the test and the company’s approach to autonomous trucks. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
What exactly are remote drivers?
We believe that humans are far better at navigating many of the nuances of driving than even the most advanced computer systems. That’s why we use a combination of autonomy and human decision making. Our trucks are autonomous on a highway and remote controlled by drivers for the first and last mile. Remote drivers are comfortably sitting at the office and help complete off-highway operations and safely navigate complex, context-heavy traffic environments such as truck yards.
Is it a better than job actually driving trucks on the road?
As remote teleoperators, Starsky’s drivers are provided meaningful employment opportunities where they can utilize years of experience in the long-haul trucking industry while remaining close to their homes and families. In addition to enhanced working conditions for remote drivers, our use-case has the potential to relieve downward pressure on wages. It will increase safe driving practices by providing regular meal and restroom breaks. That can reduce annual driver turnover and decrease incentives for drivers to push the limits of their hours-of-service requirements. It also will improve a rampant trend in the trucking industry whereby employees are misclassified as independent contractors.
At the moment, we are actively looking for drivers who want to help build the future of trucking.
Did the test truck carry a load in Florida?
The truck didn’t carry a load. We had to drive the same route and the same conditions a whole bunch of times in a row without the safety driver ever needing to do anything. A shorter route without a load let us do that test about 10-15 times a day. If we had a load, we might actually be able to do that test only two times a day. To get the same level of safety validation, it probably would have taken us five times as long with no actual increase in safety. That’s why we didn’t carry a load on this run.
What agencies did you work with in Florida to conduct the test?
We brief government stakeholders at the state and federal levels in advance of any unmanned operations. This includes U.S. Department of Transportation, state departments of transportation, highway authorities, legislators and law enforcement entities.
How many support/monitoring vehicles were involved in the test?
There were a number on this test, given that it was the first ever test on a public highway. We had three vehicles driving the route ahead of our truck to make sure there wasn’t any obstruction. Another two vehicles followed the truck so that they could quickly get a safety driver into the truck should anything happen. And there was a third vehicle overseeing and managing the test.
Where was the remote driver located?
The remote driver was located in our teleoperation center in Jacksonville, about 200 miles away from the test route.
What is the next step?
After this we’re going to start to gear up for unmanned regular service. First that means a new version of our hardware, which will be designed with the reliability necessary for unmanned regular service. We’ll probably repeat this milestone with that hardware in early fall. We’ll then expand that fleet so that we can more quickly validate longer and more frequent unmanned trips. The idea is that you’ll start to see more of those happening end of year and early next year.
What about commercialization?
Are you working with any shippers to commercialize this service?
We have been hauling freight for money since 2016. In addition to developing self-driving trucks, Starsky has been operating a full-fledged trucking business for nearly two years. We’ve built a 38-truck regular trucking company to serve as a beachhead for our autonomous trucks. We also have partnered with 15-plus brokers, including the industry leaders such as Schneider Logistics, which is regularly giving us freight to haul. We’ve made millions in revenue, gained operational competencies worthy of industry credibility, secured key industry partnerships and removed many of the key operational blockers of autonomous development. It has also been a critical tool for recruiting and vetting safety drivers and teleoperators.