U.S. postal service to use self-driving trucks in a landmark pilot project

The implications of this pilot project has manifold benefits. It will not only lower operating costs but also improve delivery time and significantly reduce the problem of driver shortages.

On Tuesday, in a development that marks a significant milestone in efforts to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology for hauling freight, the U.S. Postal Service stated, it has begun a two-week testing of transporting mail across three Southwestern states using self-driving trucks.

San Diego-based startup TuSimple said its self-driving trucks will begin hauling mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to see how the nascent technology might improve delivery times and costs. A human driver will sit behind the wheel as a precuationary step in case of emergencies. An engineer will also ride in the passenger seat.

If the tests are successful, it will mark a significant achievement for the autonomous driving industry and could mitigate the problem of driver shortages; it could also lower regulatory constraints faced by freight haulers across the country.

The pilot program involves five round trips, each totaling more than 2,100 miles (3,380 km). It has not been disclosed whether this self-driving mail delivery will continue even after the two-week pilot project.

“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” said USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum in a statement,. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”

Although TuSimple and USPS declined to disclose the cost of the program, Frum said no tax dollars were used and the agency relies on revenue from sales of postage and other products.

TuSimple has raised $178 million in private financing, including from chipmaker Nvidia Corp and Chinese online media company Sina Corp.

Its trucks will travel on major interstates and pass through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“This run is really in the sweet spot of how we believe autonomous trucks will be used,” said TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price. “These long runs are beyond the range of a single human driver, which means today if they do this run they have to figure out how to cover it with multiple drivers in the vehicle.”

According to an estimate by the American Trucking Associations, it will face a shortage of 174,500 drivers by 2024 due to an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger drivers.

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