Starsky Robotics tests self-driving truck on Florida highway

As some technology companies scale back or eliminate their self-driving programs, Starsky Robotics is pushing forward with its autonomous truck technology.

The self-driving truck startup completed a series of road tests, with a driver behind the wheel, on a section of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway near Tampa, Florida, during the week of May 13.

San Francisco-based Starsky partnered with the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority to conduct tests on one of its reversible express lanes along the 15-mile electronic toll roadway.

“We are testing our safety architecture,” Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, chief executive and co-founder of Starsky Robotics, told FreightWaves. “What we are doing is basically telling our truck that some part of it is failing, so that we can measure and make sure our truck knows it’s failing and takes appropriate action.”

While this round of testing was conducted with a driver in the cab, Starsky completed a 7-mile driverless trip in Florida in February 2018.

Since 2017, Starsky has raised nearly $22 million to develop its technology that allows drivers to remotely pilot trucks from an office. The company’s eventual goal is to have unmanned semi-trucks on U.S. roadways with a truck driver operating the first and last mile of operation via remote control, Seltz-Axmacher said.

One controversial autonomous technology pioneer has dialed back his initial vision of driverless trucks in favor of a Level 2 driver-assist technology.

“We’ve made some great improvements in the last 10 years, but we’ve kind of hit the ceiling where it’s difficult to generalize circumstances that exist on the road and have computers be able to handle all of the [possible issues] that happen, said Anthony Levandowski, founder of Pronto AI, at FreightWaves’ Transparency19 event in Atlanta recently.

Prior to starting Pronto, a company that has developed a new aftermarket safety system that controls braking, throttling and steering, Levandowski founded self-driving truck startup Otto, which was acquired by Uber in 2016. He formerly worked in Google’s self-driving division (now Waymo). Waymo and Uber settled a $245 million lawsuit over allegations that Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo.

In July 2018, Uber announced it was shutting down its self-driving truck program and would focus solely on cars.

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

The turnover rate at large fleets averaged 89 percent in 2018, according to the American Trucking Associations.

“Our approach is to leverage truck drivers, but enable them to go home every night,” he said. “Most truck drivers don’t want to spend a month at a time out on the road.”

In this round of testing, Seltz-Axmacher said Starsky is testing the truck’s ability to come to an immediate stop if a problem with a camera is detected.

“Obviously, any man-made object is going to break at some point and part of what’s hard with autonomous vehicles is if they break, there’s a chance they will be breaking while going at a high rate of speed,” he said. “We have to design our systems to be highly reliable so, if for example, a camera stops working, our system can recognize that it’s not working and can come to a stop safely instead of driving in an unsafe manner.”

The company is gearing up for its next driverless trip sometime later this year, although a location has not been finalized yet. Starsky is also conducting tests in Texas and a couple of other states and continues to test its technology on Florida roads nearly every day of the week, Seltz-Axmacher said.

“Our approach is taking the person out of the truck and have them working remotely to make high-level decisions while the truck is on the highway,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t think that a super-computer can be built that is smarter than a truck driver.”

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