December 17, 2018

Self-Driving Trucks May Be Closer Than They Appear

Drivers Training Trucks

One afternoon in Florida, a 59-year-old career truck driver named Jeff Runions sat alertly in the cab of an 18-wheeler watching the road while his 11-ton cargo of stone tile made its way up the Ronald Reagan Turnpike. He was watching his steering wheel, too, but his hands were at his side: A computer was in control.

Mr. Runions works for Starsky Robotics, a San Francisco start-up that for the past two years has been testing its self-driving technology by running freight up and down Florida. The runs help collect data and hone the technology, in hopes of convincing regulators and the company itself that self-driving trucks are ready for business.

There are still plenty of kinks. Sitting next to Mr. Runions was an Irish engineer named Rebecca Feeney Barry. As the vehicle spent hours driving past swamps and billboards for accident lawyers, Ms. Feeney Barry balanced a laptop on her knees and watched how the truck’s sensors interpreted the road and nearby cars.

At one point the computer’s “vision” briefly lost sight of the freeway because an overpass shaded the road. Later, the truck didn’t take a turn hard enough, prompting Mr. Runions to grab the wheel. Ms. Feeney Barry logged all of it. Later, after some computer code had been altered to tell the truck to tug the wheel a bit harder, it made a similar turn more smoothly.

“Sometimes it kind of messes me up when I go back to driving because now I’m used to the truck driving,” Mr. Runions said.

Starsky’s ultimate plan, of course, is to eliminate Mr. Runions’s job. But they do not want him to be out of one. Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Starsky’s 27-year-old chief executive, foresees using self-driving technology to replace long-haul drivers on freeways, but having people like Mr. Runions navigate at either end of the trip with remote control consoles that look like an arcade racing game.

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Drivers would go off to work in offices and might spend their day driving trucks through the last few miles of several different routes in several different cities before heading home for dinner.

“One driver can drive 10 to 30 trucks per day,” Mr. Seltz-Axmacher said.

The March of Automation

Starsky’s vision of a remote operation is unique. But the basic idea — having trucks drive themselves on highways and letting human drivers take over in complicated city environments — is something of an industry consensus.


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“One of the big misconceptions about self-driving technology is that it is going to emerge and be able to drive all the time in all circumstances,” said Alden Woodrow, the product manager for Uber’s self-driving truck unit.

As part of their partnership, Embark, Ryder and Electrolux are conducting what amounts to elaborate dry runs to imagine what self-driving-truck routes will look like. The runs start with human drivers leaving an Electrolux warehouse in El Paso and driving to the edge of the city, where they hitch the trailer to one of Embark’s autonomous trucks.

From there the truck drives itself for 650 highway miles (with a safety driver in tow) to Ontario, Calif., where the Embark drivers transfer their trailer to another Ryder driver, who drives the final few miles to one of Electrolux’s California warehouses.

“It’s a mirror of what we would do if there weren’t a driver inside,” said Mr. Rodrigues, the Embark chief.

A few miles from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., a company called Peloton Technology is betting that there is a business to be built in a less radical version of automation. Peloton is on the cusp of rolling out a system that will make it easier and safer for trucks to travel one after the other on the highway, in a formation called platooning, helping them save gas by reducing wind drag.

Trucks with drivers already do this. But Peloton’s technology aims to make platooning safer with a mix of cameras, sensors and networking equipment, allowing the trucks to talk to each other and helping to prevent the second driver from ramming into the first truck after a sudden stop.

Josh Switkes, the company’s chief executive, said that because Peloton’s technology helps drivers get better at doing something they are familiar with, he thinks it can be quickly commercialized.

“Our basic approach is let’s bring real value to the fleet and society now,” Mr. Switkes said.

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