Self-driving trucks begin mail delivery test for U.S. Postal Service
(Reuters) - The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday started a two-week test transporting mail across three Southwestern states using self-driving trucks, a step forward in the effort to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology for hauling freight.
San Diego-based startup TuSimple said its self-driving trucks will begin hauling mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to see how the nascent technology might improve delivery times and costs. A safety driver will sit behind the wheel to intervene if necessary and an engineer will ride in the passenger seat.
If successful, it would mark an achievement for the autonomous driving industry and a possible solution to the driver shortage and regulatory constraints faced by freight haulers across the country.
The pilot program involves five round trips, each totaling more than 2,100 miles (3,380 km) or around 45 hours of driving. It is unclear whether self-driving mail delivery will continue after the two-week pilot.
“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum said. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”
TuSimple and the USPS declined to disclose the cost of the program, but Frum said no tax dollars were used and the agency relies on revenue from sales of postage and other products. TuSimple has raised $178 million in private financing, including from chipmaker Nvidia Corp and Chinese online media company Sina Corp.
The trucks will travel on major interstates and pass through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
“This run is really in the sweet spot of how we believe autonomous trucks will be used,” said TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price. “These long runs are beyond the range of a single human driver, which means today if they do this run they have to figure out how to cover it with multiple drivers in the vehicle.”
The goal is to eliminate the need for a driver, freeing shippers and freight-haulers from the constraints of a worsening driver shortage. The American Trucking Associations estimates a shortage of as many as 174,500 drivers by 2024, due to an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger drivers.
A new safety law requiring truck drivers to electronically log their miles has further constrained how quickly and efficiently fleets can move goods.
TuSimple’s tie-up with the USPS marks an achievement for the fledgling self-driving truck industry, and follows Swedish company Einride’s entry into freight delivery using driverless electric trucks on a public road, announced last week.
The developments contrast with retrenching efforts by robotaxi companies such as General Motors Co unit Cruise, Uber Technologies Inc and startup Drive.ai, which have stumbled in building self-driving cars that can anticipate and respond to humans and navigate urban areas, an expensive and technologically challenging feat.
Price said self-driving trucks have advantages over passenger cars, including the relative ease of operating on interstates compared with city centers, which reduces mapping requirements and safety challenges involving pedestrians and bicyclists.
Amazon says it has deployed more than 200,000 robotic drives globally
Amazon is serious about robotics. For most other companies, the technology may still feel like some distant novelty, but the e-commerce giant has already begun to deploy robotics systems en masse. Robotics VP Brad Porter noted onstage today at the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas that the company has deployed 200,000 robotics drives globally.
Earlier this year, it noted that it had more than 100,000 robotics systems deployed across roughly 25 fulfillment centers here in the States, a number that includes both its own homegrown systems and third-parties. We captured both on a recent trip to the company’s massive Staten Island fulfillment center, though Amazon’s own Kiva-based systems clearly form the heart of the operation.
This morning, Amazon announced a pair of new robots, Xanthus and Pegasus. It noted at the event that it already has 800 of the latter, a warehouse package-delivery robot, deployed in U.S. fulfillment centers.
Porter attempted to nip in the bud any questions about job loss. “While these robots provide a critical function in our buildings, we are not automating away all the work,” he told the crowd. “In that same time frame, we have added over 300,000 full time jobs around the world.”
Amazon notes that its robotic palletizers have stacked more than two billion totes. But the company is clearly looking to push things even further as it works to make one-day delivery standard for Prime users. Such a move will no doubt have an impact on warehouse workers who have already been under strain from current working conditions. As it fields negative press around these sorts of jobs, Amazon is clearly looking to use robotics to help alleviate some of the burden.