Autonomous Trucks Hit the Gas

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Autonomous truck on a highway

An autonomous big rig is barreling down U.S. interstates in a high-profile trial, raising the prospect that driverless trucking will leapfrog self-driving cars.

What’s new: The U.S. Postal Service is using an autonomous truck to ferry mail between distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas. A Peterbilt rig equipped with self-driving technology by TuSimple will make the 2,100-mile round trip through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas five times over two weeks, moving for 22 hours at a stretch. Although the rig will drive itself, humans will sit behind the wheel and in the passenger seat.

Why it matters: The post office lost $3.9 billion in 2018, making 12 years of consecutive annual loss. It spends $4 billion a year on independent highway trucking, and a dearth of drivers is adding to the expense as truckers age out of the industry. Autonomous rigs could pick up the slack, saving money while keeping trucks on the road.

What they’re saying: Self-driving tech “could save hundreds of millions by eliminating human drivers and hours-of-service rules that keep them from driving around the clock.” — Bloomberg

Behind the news: The test comes as several companies developing self-driving taxis are reassessing their plans, including Cruise and Uber. Meanwhile, their trucking counterparts are stepping on the gas. TuSimple is carrying cargo discreetly for 12 customers in the U.S. and China. Swedish rival Einride recently began making driverless freight deliveries. And the Post Office is making its own moves.

Takeaway: Highway driving is simpler to automate than urban driving, where roads are denser and less predictable. On the other hand, autonomous trucks must comply with diverse regulations as they cross various jurisdictions in a single journey. Compliance issues are bound to tap the brakes until a national regulatory framework is in place.


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