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This Self-Driving Truck Startup Has a Place For Human Drivers

Words by Leon Kaye

Trucking is the logistical backbone of the U.S. economy. One of the trucking industry’s leading trade groups estimates that 70 percent of all American freight is transported by trucks. That 10.5 billion tons of goods require as many as 3.5 million truck drivers across the country.

But decent pay, steady work with the boom in online shopping and an opportunity to see much of the country is not proving attractive enough for potential truck drivers.

The long hours and isolating nature of the work turns off many younger people. Furthermore, despite the logistics boom, drivers are not necessarily benefiting from this rising tide, as wages are stuck around $20 an hour – not enough incentive for many to spend most of their time alone, sit for long periods of time and cope with the angst from other motorists.

True, those pay rates are not terrible compared to the average wages of a college graduate. And they are significantly higher than most jobs available to someone who only has a high school diploma. Nevertheless, the downsides of a career in commercial trucking are not enough to lure more drivers. Year-to-year, there are 50,000 more jobs than drivers – and the trucking industry at large has not found a solution to the problem.

Starsky Robotics, a California-based startup, believes it has the long-term solution: self-driving trucks that could haul freight across the country. By retrofitting trucks to drive autonomously, drivers would be able to stay home and spend more time with friends and family. And those same truck drivers would be the ones responsible for the supervision of these driverless trucks, only taking control for the vehicles’ first and last miles of hauling assignments.

The startup says it still needs truck drivers, as they understand what’s involved in trucking logistics -- whether it's a long stretch on the highway or complicated maneuvers to approach or depart a loading dock.

In Starsky's model, drivers sit in a remote module that looks similar to the passenger seat of a truck’s cab. When they turn the steering wheel, the truck to which they are assigned as a monitor turns with them.

“What we’re really trying to do is solve a problem,” said Stefan Seltz-Axmache, co-founder of Starsky Robotics, in a recently released video that explains the startup’s technology. “We’re going to let these people go home every night to spend time with their families, and it’s going to fundamentally make the economy more efficient.

As with the case made by the designers and manufacturers of self-driving cars, Starsky Robotics argues that eliminating human error can make the roads safer while making transportation more efficient overall. Last month, the company tested this theory by hauling 5,000 pounds of empty milk crates for 180 miles, using robotics to drive 80 percent of the time.

The company will seek out truck drivers with at least five years of experience to monitor its fleet of self-driving trucks, Forbes reported in a recent profile. Those drivers will be responsible for monitoring up to 30 trucks at a time.

Starsky Robotics hopes to launch its first regular deliveries within the next few months, with drivers at first sitting in the cab and then operating these vehicles autonomously by the end of this year.

Other autonomous vehicle technology companies are also eyeing the trucking industry. Otto, the startup acquired by Uber and now embroiled in litigation with Google, recently announced a 120-mile driverless delivery of Budweiser beer. Another Silicon Valley startup, Embark, says it has developed a similar highway autopilot system for trucks that could make the industry safer.

Image credit: Starsky Robotics

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye