USPS Is Testing Self-driving Trucks

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The era of self-driving vehicles is closing in on society faster than we know it. The idea that seemed decades away from reality is, in actuality much closer than anticipated as companies from left and right are continuously trying to one-up one another to be the first in the emerging industry.

Autonomous driving has been an idea that started to be part of conversations in mainstream media when Tesla began to roll out its vehicles with autonomous driving features, although not completely but in small bits like automated parking and the like.

May 21, the United States Postal Service (USPS) decided to implement the idea of using automated self-driving trucks to conduct deliveries and transport. USPS partnered with a self-driving trucking company named TuSimple to haul its mail as part of a two-week test of the startup’s autonomous technology.

TuSimple will carry the mail on five round trips between the USPS’s Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas, distribution centers, which is a stretch of more than 1,000 miles where each is totaling more than 2,100 miles of driving.

The first round of tests began Tuesday, where the autonomous driving company started to deliver letters and packages moving between Phoenix and Dallas on customized Peterbilt trucks with TuSimple’s technology.

Moreover, this will be USPS’ first time to contract an autonomous driving company to haul its deliveries since the postal service launched a competition among other autonomous driving companies last 2016.

The years-long competition was meant to address two issues. One of which was to replace USPS’ old delivery trucks and the other was to mitigate financial costs.

Annually, the Postal Service spends more than $4 billion on highway trucking services through outside contractors. The increasing numbers on driver shortage also aren’t helping as driver demand quickly increases fees. By eliminating drivers out of the equation, USPS could save millions of dollars.

TuSimple will most likely be the first (if not the last) for the Postal Service since this will only be a test whether or not the autonomous driving company would be the right fit and work in the long run.

The test wouldn’t be able to drive autonomously just yet. It will be accompanied by a driver and an engineer to monitor the technology.

“This pilot is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future,” the USPS said in a press release that cited the possibility of using “a future class of vehicles” to improve service, reduce emissions and save money.

“When the vehicle can operate truly driverless, it will be much more efficient,” said Chuck Price, chief product officer at TuSimple. “We think we complete a coast-to-coast run in two days, where today it takes five.”

TuSimple is marketing the idea of a truck that can travel and deliver payloads without the need for rests and stops, unlike the conventional human driver. From a perspective, this innovation could cut costs and time that could help make companies earn more.

TuSimple has raised $178 million with Nvidia and Chinese company Sina as its backers, through its testing in Arizona. As of January, it had 11 trucks on the road, where it has carried cargo for 12 different companies as part of its testing and make a profit out of the costly development process.

Like Tesla, it is eyeing to make the technology possible through developing a vision-based autonomous system. As of the moment, TuSimple’s trucks are equipped with nine cameras that it’s heavily reliant on to detect cars, pedestrians, and other obstacles.

Moreover, TuSimple’s Class 8 semi-trucks are level 4 under the guidelines penned by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), meaning they’re capable of full autonomy in controlled (and often geofenced) highways and local streets.

“It is exciting to think that before many people will ride in a robo-taxi, their mail and packages may be carried in a self-driving truck,” said president, founder, and chief technology officer of TuSimple Dr. Xiaodi Hou. “Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress.”

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