Driverless Trucks Reach New Milestone

New Milestone No Driver Tests

Please consider Automated trucking, a technical milestone that could disrupt hundreds of thousands of jobs, hits the road.

Starsky Robotics, a tech startup, may have been driving in the right lane, but they passed the competition with 35,000 pounds of steel thundering down a busy highway with nobody behind the wheel.  

The test was a milestone. Starsky was the first company to put a truck on an open highway without a human on board. 

60 Minutes also spoke with Chuck Price, the chief product officer at TuSimple, a privately held, global autonomous trucking outfit valued at more than a billion dollars with operations in the U.S. and China.

Price expects driverless tests with no human backup in 2021.

Veteran Truckers Go for a Ride

Click on the link for a 13-minute video in which 60 Minutes correspondent Jon Wertheim went on a test run with veteran drivers.

The truckers, Jeff Widdows, his son Tanner, Linda Allen, Eric Richardson, and Maureen Fitzgerald were all astonished to learn how far the technology has come. 

Trucker Linda Allen: I wasn't aware 'til I ran across one on the Florida Turnpike and that just-- it just scares me. I can't imagine. But I didn't know anything about it.

Trucker Eric Richardson: I didn't know that it'd come so far. And I'm thinking, "Wow. It's here."

Tu Simple Chuck Price: Our system can see farther than any other autonomous system in the world. We can see forward over a half mile.

60 Minutes Jon Wertheim: You can drive autonomously at night?

Chuck Price: We can. Day, night. And in the rain. And in the rain at night.

Trucker Maureen Fitzgerald: This truck is scanning mirrors, looking 1,000 meters out. It's processing all the things that my brain could never do and it can react 15 times faster than I could.

Steve Viscelli, sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania,  an expert in freight transportation and automation: I've identified two segments that I think are most at-risk. And that's-- refrigerated and dry van truckload. And those constitute about 200,000 trucking jobs. And then what's called line haul and they're somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000-90,000 jobs there.

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Jon Wertheim: What about inspections? Does anyone from the Arizona DOT come by and-- and check this stuff out?

Chuck Price: The DOT comes by all the time. We talk with them regularly. It's not a formal inspection process yet.

Elaine Chao, secretary of the Department of Transportation declined a 60 Minutes interview but offered a statement: "The Department needs to prepare for the transportation systems of the future by engaging with new technologies to address… safety… without hampering innovation." 

Cost vs Savings

  • The cost cost of a truck is about $250,000. 
  • The saving is an annual salary of $45,000
  • In addition, a driverless truck can go coast-to-coast in 2 days, not 4.

UPS, Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service ship freight with TuSimple trucks.

Assessment

The 60 Minutes' assessment is the same as mine for years.

We may focus on the self-driving car, but autonomous trucking is not an if, it's a when. And the when is coming sooner than you might expect. As we first reported in March, companies have been quietly testing their prototypes on public roads. Right now there's a high-stakes, high-speed race pitting the usual suspects - Google and Tesla and other global tech firms - against small start-ups smelling opportunity. The driverless semi will convulse the trucking sector and the 2 million American drivers who turn a key and maneuver their big rig every day. And the winners of this derby, they may be poised to make untold billions; they'll change the U.S. transportation grid; and they will emerge as the new kings of the road.

Hub-to-Hub On the Way 

Hub-to-hub highway driving is much simpler than in-city driving. 

It's a no-brainer for cost savings and it will undoubtedly reduce the number of accidents. 

Timeline

Drivers will vanish on the interstates within two years of DOT driverless approval. The last mile and in-city driving is another matter as I have stated all along. 

My 2022 timeline is still possible. My optimistic schedule of earlier won't happen.

A year either way doesn't matter. We will soon enough have a surplus of drivers whose skills will no longer be in demand.

Mish