Self-driving trucks operated by startup TuSimple will haul mail and packages across the Southwest in a two-week pilot program with the U.S. Postal Service.
The technology firm said USPS has awarded it a contract to perform five round trips between Postal Service distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas — a journey of more than 1,000 miles each way through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas along interstates 10, 20 and 30. The first run was scheduled to begin May 21.
For the duration of the pilot, TuSimple’s trucks will have a backup driver onboard, along with a safety engineer, to monitor the vehicle’s performance as it drives autonomously on the highway.
“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,” Xiaodi Hou, TuSimple’s founder, president and chief technology officer, said in the announcement. “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.”
TuSimple said it intends to complete each trip within 22 hours by operating as continuously as possible, including overnight driving. The company will swap out its drivers at stopping points to comply with hours-of-service limits.
A TuSimple truck. (TuSimple)
This type of time-critical, longhaul route that typically requires team drivers is particularly well-suited to automation, said Chuck Price, chief product officer at TuSimple.
“We think this really is the sweet spot for autonomous movement, because traditionally this is done in a slip-seat mode, which is really logistically challenging,” he said.
TuSimple’s self-driving system relies primarily on cameras, along with radar and lidar sensors, to track the vehicle’s environment.
Although its self-driving trucks have two people onboard today, the company is working to reach the point where driver oversight is no longer necessary.
“Even when we’ve got two folks in the vehicle, it is our goal to be as fully autonomous as possible on this run, but monitored for safety of course,” Price said. “In the future, we expect it to be possible to be a fully autonomous operation — driver out of the loop or out of the vehicle, at the choice of the fleet.”
For the pilot, TuSimple will use three of its own self-driving tractors to haul USPS trailers, Price said. The trucks will obey all posted speed limits but will not travel significantly below those speeds, he said.
Price said the pilot will not only provide valuable experience to TuSimple as it tests its system, but also give USPS insight into how it could use this technology to boost efficiency and save costs.
In February, USPS issued a request for information on autonomous-vehicle technology for its own mail-delivery vehicles.
The Postal Service “is investigating the feasibility of utilizing autonomous delivery-vehicle technology as an integrated part of its vehicle delivery fleet,” according to the filing.
The pilot with USPS also will mark TuSimple’s debut in Texas.
The company envisions freight runs between Arizona and Texas becoming a core route for its self-driving truck business, Price said.
“There is a lot of interest from a number of shippers to utilize this capability on this run,” he said, but did not identify specific companies.
TuSimple, founded in 2015, has dual headquarters in Beijing and San Diego.
The company operates its U.S. fleet of self-driving trucks out of Tucson, Ariz., and is in the process of expanding that fleet to 50 vehicles.
Earlier this year, TuSimple announced it raised $95 million in its Series D round of funding, which lifted the company’s total funding to $178 million.