Author(s): Raghu Gopal
The US Postal Service (USPS) has begun testing its first long-haul, self-driving delivery truck in a two-week pilot that will use autonomous trucks from TuSimple. The vehicles will travel on major interstates and pass through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to deliver mail between distribution centres in Phoenix and Dallas.
TuSimple, based in San Diego, is a start-up that develops autonomous trucking solutions and services. It has been hauling freight on Interstate 10 in self-driving trucks since August 2018. Founded in 2015, the company has a fleet of 17 self-driving trucks and has raised over $178 million in four rounds of funding. During the pilot, the trucks will initially have a safety engineer and driver in the cab to monitor performance and take control in case of any safety issues.
For TuSimple, the test drives are a chance to validate its vision of self-driving trucks changing the dynamics and costs of long-haul trucking. Its tie-up with the USPS also marks an achievement for the fledgling self-driving truck industry. It follows Swedish company Einride's entry into freight delivery using driverless electric trucks on public roads, announced a couple of weeks ago.
The trucks use a perception system that monitors up to 1,000 meters from the vehicle's current location using nine cameras and two lidar sensors.
TuSimple says this allows for 35 seconds of reaction time whatever happens ahead of the truck. Combined with its own artificial intelligence technology, TuSimple claims to have one of the safest and most efficient autonomous driving systems, capable of handling complex driving scenarios and adverse weather conditions.
USPS has been losing money for several years, and has been looking for ways to cut operating costs. It sees autonomous driving to be a way out of its troubles. At the end of 2018, the postal service had more than 5,500 trucks and trailers in its fleet. As the US trucking industry tackles a shortage of drivers, USPS hopes that self-driving trucks will lower the cost of shipping. In 2018, the American Trucking Association estimated that 50,000 more drivers were needed to close the gap.
TuSimple notes that the freight flowing along the Interstate 10 corridor accounts for 60% of the US' total economic activity, and expects it to become a central route for its autonomous vehicles. If the pilot is 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 in the country. The country could keep on trucking.