TuSimple, the Tucson-by-way-of-San-Diego-based self-driving freight truck startup, recently announced a huge deal with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to rev up a two-week test transporting mail across three Southwestern states. The test, which will see the company’s autonomous big rigs shuttling across the desert highways, hauling everything from eBay packages to utility bills to magazine subscriptions, is a move that puts the self-driving trucking industry closer to being commercialized for everyday life.
“It’s not just the driver shortage we’re looking to fix–this technology will enable fleets to provide services that they couldn’t before,” said Chuck Price, Chief Product Officer of TuSimple. “Considering you need a package coast to coast in two or three days, you’re not going to put that on a truck, you’ll put that on a plane. But with an autonomous vehicle operating 24 hours, it’s possible to do a run like that in two days or less.”
In March, Governor Ducey announced from Tucson that TuSimple would create 500 new jobs over the next two years in engineering, truck driving, and office management. This pairing with the USPS may possibly help deliver those jobs, as well as mail.
Tucson is where TuSimple’s testing facility is located, with engineers and mechanics and drivers zipping around making sure that the trucks can drive on their own. The company is set to expand its fleet of autonomous trucks to 500 by later this year, making it the world’s largest autonomous truck fleet.
For this project, the TuSimple trucks will deliver mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to monitor how the technology can improve on delivery times and costs. A driver will be present, sitting behind the wheel to take over if necessary, and an engineer will ride shotgun to keep an eye on the software and hardware.
If all proves to be successful, it would be a big win for the self-driving tech industry and provide a solution to the increasingly bleak driver shortage throughout the country. In fact, the American Trucking Association has said that the industry is staring at the potential of a shortage of about 100,000 drivers in the next five years as older drivers, the majority of the industry, begin to phase out.
“It’s very difficult for the carriers to meet the demand because they don’t have the drivers. This tech will meet demand and will also benefit the whole supply chain,” Price said. “If a fleet doesn’t have a driver, they won’t have a truck, which means the manufacturer won’t supply the cargo and parts. That’s a lot of sales that’s not happening…In the end for consumers it means the shipping prices will go down.”
“This pilot project is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future,” notes Kim Frum, spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology to accommodate a diverse mail mix, enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions, and produce operational savings.”
The trucks will make five round trips, each totaling more than 2,100 miles, through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and may continue on after the two-week pilot program. Long-term, Price says that the goal for the company is to cut out drivers entirely from long-haul routes, like Dallas to Phoenix, and leave short-haul routes, such as in the same state, for actual human drivers.