US Postal Service launches self-driving truck pilot program

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On May 21, the United States Postal Service (USPS) launched a new pilot program to test the viability of integrating self-driving trucks into its fleet. The agency has partnered with San Diego-based tech startup TuSimple to transport mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas. The initiative will involve five round trips in total, covering more than 2,100 miles across three states.

Interstate vs. City Autonomous Transportation

Given that established corporations like Uber and Tesla have struggled to develop viable autonomous transport, the USPS’s imitative may seem ill-advised. However, the organization’s multistate self-driving truck test is safer than forcing an artificial intelligence-directed vehicle to navigate a crowded city.

TuSimple’s trucks will be driving across U.S. interstate systems. So, they’ll be less likely to encounter pedestrians or bicyclists. Furthermore, given the lack of urban congestion, the vehicles’ deep learning programs will have an easier job navigating between locations.

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Nevertheless, the firm isn’t sending its autonomous vehicles out unattended. Human operators and software engineers will oversee the freight trucks involved in the pilot program.

A Technological Solution to a Human Problem

If the USPS/TuSimple pilot program is successful, it could have significant implications for the transportation sector.

The American Trucking Association has reported the U.S. freight industry is about to experience a serious labor crisis. The organization predicts that by 2024, the field will have a shortage of 174,500 drivers. Unfortunately, the current generation of long-haul operators is getting older, and replacements are not waiting in the wings.

The transportation sector is also grappling with new regulations that keep drivers safer but also slow them down. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration mandated long-haulers must electronically log their driving hours in 2017. Furthermore, the agency now prohibits property-carrying drivers from being on the road for more than 11 hours a day.

If TuSimple’s trucks can complete their journeys without incident, they might have a solution for the transport industry’s worker and regulation problems.

For instance, the USPS’s Arizona to Texas run takes around 45 hours to complete. While a human driver can’t legally finish that trip in one go, a self-driving system could. Consequently, the startup’s trucks could help freight companies reduce costs and increase operational efficiency.

As the American trucking industry generated $700.3 billion in economic activity in 2017, TuSimple stands to profit immensely if it can successfully disrupt the sector.