Completely driverless trucks are cruising down Florida highways, courtesy of Starsky Robotics. The startup this morning revealed that one of its commercial Volvo semis traveled 9.4 miles along Florida’s Turnpike on June 16 without a safety driver, in a pilot it’s calling the first of its kind.
Over the course of the route, Starsky’s 18-wheeler successfully navigated a rest area, merged onto the highway, changed lanes, and kept a speed of 55 miles per hour. Starsky leverages a team of teleoperators to guide its trucks through tricky situations, and this time was no different. A remote driver in Jacksonville watched six real-time feeds from cameras mounted on the exterior of the semi truck’s cabin (accompanied by stats like packets lost in transmission) and drove it with a video-game-like steering wheel.
The latest experiment follows on the heels of a small-scale deployment in February 2018, during which one of Starsky’s trucks drove fully unmanned for seven miles at 25 miles per hour on a closed road in Florida. Last month, the company claims it set a record for the fastest driverless road-legal vehicle when a truck reached 55 miles per hour on a closed portion of the Selmon Expressway outside Tampa.
Encouraged by this progress, Starsky says that in the coming months, it will accelerate the pace of testing and expand the size of its fleet as it works toward unmanned regular service. The company anticipates that as its freight deliveries ramp up, teleoperators will monitor as many as 10 to 30 vehicles per hour via video links, which Starsky cofounder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher says could be a boon for a $676 billion trucking industry that is expected to experience a shortage of over 100,000 truck drivers in the next few years.
“At Starsky, we are taking a distinctly unique approach to automation and safety. We aren’t building fully autonomous trucks designed to operate without any human intervention or relying exclusively on computers to make every driving decision. We know that today humans are better at navigating many of the nuances of driving than even the most advanced computer systems, which is why we use remote drivers to help our trucks at their most contextually complex junctures,” said Seltz-Axmacher.
Starsky, which was founded in 2016 by Carnegie Mellon graduate Kartik Tiwari and Seltz-Axmacher, recently raised $16.5 million in venture capital to further its research, development, and testing efforts. Last year, one of its trucks completed a seven-minute drive on a closed course without a human onboard, and the company claims to have fulfilled deliveries with 85% autonomy.
Starsky has plenty in the way of competition, like Thor Trucks, Pronto.ai, TuSimple, and Aurora, which attracted a $530 million investment in February at a valuation of over $2 billion. There’s also Ike, a self-driving truck startup founded by former Apple, Google, and Uber Advanced Technologies Group engineers that has raised $52 million, and venture-backed Swedish driverless car company Einride. Meanwhile, Paz Eshel and former Uber and Otto engineer Don Burnette recently secured $40 million for startup Kodiak Robotics. That’s not to mention Embark, which integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt semis and which launched a pilot with Amazon to haul cargo, or driverless truck solutions from incumbents like Daimler and Volvo.
But there’s plenty of cash to go around. The autonomous vehicle industry is predicted to reach 6,700 units globally, totaling $54.23 billion this year, and it stands to save the logistics and shipping industry $70 billion annually while boosting productivity by 30%.