Another start-up tech company is aggressively staking its claim as an autonomous trucking technology leader. San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics has been touting a recent, 7-mile test run with no human interaction as well as a $16.5 million Series A investment in the company by Shasta Ventures.
While most automotive companies exploring autonomous trucks insist that a driver will be mandatory for years to come, Starsky Robotics is going all-in on the early adoption of Level 5 autonomous systems, moving freight without any human in the vehicle at all.
“It’s hard to drive a truck from sea to shining sea,” said Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO and co-founder of Starsky Robotics, in a recent blog post. “Long days, weeks away from the family, and ever-present danger: It’s really difficult to get people to spend a month at a time in a truck. It’s the main problem facing the trucking industry. And you only solve it by getting the driver out of the truck. Any autonomous truck that still needs a physical driver doesn’t solve the problem.”
With that goal in mind, Seltz-Axmacher said over the past year, his company has achieved several milestones in its quest to perfect a driverless truck. He noted that in April of last year, Starsky Robotics started regularly using self-driving trucks to haul commercial freight, testing its autonomous vehicle control system in truck yards and major freight lanes, hauling everything from 5,000 pounds of milk crates to 40,000 pounds of tile.
In September, he said, Starsky Robotics completed the longest end-to-end autonomous trip ever, hauling water 68 miles to Hurricane Irma victims in Florida – a distance he said is an industry record. This was followed by a 7-mile run in Florida without any human in the truck at all.
Self-Driving Trucks Get Ready to Haul Freight
Building on those successes, Seltz-Axmacher said it is now time for autonomous technology to move out of the testing phase and begin hauling commercial freight – a goal he said Starsky Robotics and its partners will pursue this year.
“The trucking industry can’t fill all the jobs it has today,” said Rob Coneybeer, founder and managing director of Shasta Ventures, commenting on his company’s investment in Starsky Robotics. “The delivery of goods isn’t going anywhere, but the labor shortage in the industry looms large, threatening its long-term growth. That’s where Starsky fits in. The company is no just amplifying the productivity of experienced drivers and helping the industry continue to grow, but it is also transforming logistics as we know it.”
Other autonomous driving developers such as Uber and Waymo insist that in some circumstances at least -- city driving being the most commonly cited example – human drivers will be necessary in trucks for the foreseeable future. Seltz-Axmacher disagrees on this point as well, telling Wired magazine that truck driving today is, "..bad, with unformfortable work environments, long hours that leave little time for friends and families and wages that aren't high enough to compensate for those downsides."
And although he sees scenarios with autonomous trucks that will require human control at times, Seltz-Axmacher says Starsky Robotics' approach will be able to use humans in a centralized command and control center taking remote control of the trucks, much as Air Force pilots fly drones on the other side of the world today.