On 21 May 2019, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) launched a two-week pilot program that utilizes self-driving trucks to transport mail from Phoenix, Arizona to Dallas, Texas. This test is a major step toward commercializing autonomous vehicle (AV) technology for hauling freight.
The self-driving trucks traveled on major interstates throughout the pilot, which consisted of five round trips. Each round trip totaled more than 2,100 miles and 45 hours of driving. The trucks had a human driver behind the wheel to intervene if necessary as well as an engineer in the passenger seat to monitor the AV system.
Run by San Diego-based startup TuSimple, the trucks were equipped with cameras that could see and identify threats more than half a mile away, which is much farther than any lidar laser-scanning system. TuSimple’s system can handle high winds, night driving, and rain. However, ice on the road still presents a problem.
“This run is really in the sweet spot of how we believe autonomous trucks will be used,” says TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price. “These long runs are beyond the range of a single human driver, which means today if they do this run, they have to figure out how to cover it with multiple drivers.”
Can AV Technology Save the USPS?
Moving nearly 485 million pieces of mail every day, the USPS spends more than $4 billion per year on highway trucking services through outside contractors. Because it doesn’t receive any taxpayer funds, its only revenue comes from postage sales. And every year for more than a decade, the USPS has posted a loss.
Keeping in line with its five-year strategic plan to be open innovative solutions, the organization issued a request last February for information regarding how AVs could fit into its fleet.
“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” says USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”
Self-driving trucks could save hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating the need for multiple human drivers. The impending shortage of drivers makes self-driving trucks an even more attractive prospect. Due to an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger drivers, the American Trucking Association estimates a shortage of as many as 174,500 drivers by 2024.
Additionally, the speed and efficiency with which fleets can move goods are affected by regulatory constraints. For example, truck drivers are required to electronically log their miles, and they cannot exceed 11 hours of drive time per day. A coast-to-coast run takes about five days. However, driverless trucking could cut that down to just two days.
Although an entire fleet of self-driving mail trucks could still be a long time away, autonomous long-haul trucking may become a reality much sooner. Prepare your organization for the latest developments in AV technology with training in foundational and practical applications of autonomous, connected, and intelligent vehicle technologies.
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Romo, Vanessa. (21 May 2019). U.S. Postal Service Tests Self-Driving Trucks. NPR.
Krok, Andrew. (21 May 2019). Self-driving trucks go postal in USPS two-week pilot. CNET.
Repko, Melissa. (30 May 2019). U.S. Postal Service mail, packages are headed to Dallas by self-driving truck. Tech Xplore.