Starsky Robotics tests first unmanned autonomous truck on public highway in Florida

Starsky Robotics tested its fully unmanned autonomous truck on a 9.4-mile stretch of public highway on the Florida Turnpike on June 16. The company had previously been testing its self-driving technology on private roads.

“We are now the only autonomous company that’s testing trucks without having people in the cabs on public roads with the motoring public,” Stefan Seltz-Axmacher told FreightWaves. “This is the biggest step forward in the autonomous industry.”

A remote operator sitting in an office in Jacksonville, Florida, about 200 miles away, handled the first and last mile operations of the truck, which was approximately 0.2 miles of the 9.4-mile trip, he said.

The operator, who has 20-plus years of long-haul trucking experience, remotely navigated the truck from the rest area onto the highway, ordered a lane change, then helped direct the truck back off of the highway, through the toll plaza, and parked it safely at its final destination

Starsky has been testing its autonomous technology for more than two years now. The self-driving truck startup completed a series of road tests on a section of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway near Tampa, Florida in May.

Starsky also completed a 7-mile driverless trip on a closed road in February 2018 in Florida and hauled its first automated load on the Florida Turnpike in February of 2017.

The three-year startup, headquartered in San Francisco, currently has three autonomous trucks, but plans to ramp up to 25 driverless trucks by 2020. However, this goal cannot be achieved without the revenue generated by Starsky’s traditional over-the-road trucking operation, which consists of 36 trucks. The company got its operating authority in March 2017.

“All of our trucks have been regularly hauling freight for money,” Seltz-Axmacher said. “While our autonomous trucks are primarily testing in Florida and Texas, we’re hauling freight in most of the lower 48 [states].”

The company is currently looking to expand its fleet by adding more over-the-road truck drivers.

The goal is to eventually transition the most qualified truck drivers over to the autonomous vehicle side to tele-operate the trucks from an office environment.

Seltz-Axmacher said Starsky is seeking long-haul drivers, who are comfortable and confident with their electronic logging devices, or ELDs, and their transportation management systems, or TMS, to retrain as remote operators.

The training time to switch a long-haul truck driver over to a remote operator can happen in a matter of weeks,” he said. “We look for those types of drivers that are more technology savvy.”

The self-driving company, founded by Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari, has established key partnerships with companies like Penske Truck Leasing, Schneider Logistics, C.H. Robinson and Transport Enterprise Leasing.

Since 2017, Starsky has raised nearly $22 million in equity from investors like Trucks VC and Shasta Ventures.

Piloting trucks remotely will help solve the turnover problem within the trucking industry and will attract younger drivers, Seltz-Axmacher said.

“There will be no shortage of drivers who wouldn’t be happy working in an office where they can remotely-operate trucks and go home to their families after their shifts,” he said. “In the trucking industry, there is a sustained difficulty in attracting and retaining drivers who want to spend a month at a time in a truck.”

The American Trucking Associations said the turnover rate at large fleets averaged 89 percent in 2018 – up two points from the previous year.

Self-driving trucks may also help solve the truck parking problem, which drivers listed as one of their top concerns in 2018, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s latest survey.

“It’s terrible that truck parking is even an issue for drivers who have worked a long and hard day and have self-identified that they are tired and no longer feel safe to drive, but can’t find a place to park,” Seltz-Axmacher said.

Starsky’s ultimate vision is to have its autonomous trucks driving 24 hours per day, but with a number of remote operators changes shifts.

“This will allow us to move freight faster and offer higher-quality service with our remote operators,” he said.

Starsky said it plans to continue to work with federal and state regulators to ensure its autonomous trucks are safe to operate on public roadways.

“We see government entities as a valuable partner in making sure we’re testing out technology in the most responsible way possible,” Seltz-Axmacher said.