Despite what the Patrick Swayze film "Black Dog" might have you believe, the world of long-haul trucking isn't a slam-bang adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. It's a lot of long, tedious hours that a driver has to spend away from their family. It's a battle against fatigue and the clock. But Florida startup Starsky Robotics wants to change all that by making autonomous semi trucks a reality.
Starsky is doing a pretty good job of taking autonomous trucks out of the realm of the theoretical and getting them onto the road. Just this month, the company conducted the first ever fully unmanned autonomous truck drive on a public highway. Unmanned means unmanned too, there were no emergency drivers or engineers onboard. The truck traveled for 7 miles on a stretch of Florida highway, admittedly one that was dead-straight and empty, without incident. This test is the first of its kind.
Starsky has previously used manned but autonomous trucks to deliver aid in the wake of Hurricane Irma. One of its trucks on an aid trip was able to complete a 68-mile trip with no safety driver interventions. The thing that makes the Starsky approach a little different than that of some other autonomous trucking companies is that it's only focused on autonomy on the highway, where it's simpler to do cleanly and safely. For "first mile" and "last mile" portion of a truck's trip, a remote driver takes over and navigates the more complex city streets.
Starsky isn't so much trying to replace truck drivers as take away the tedious and dangerous parts of their jobs while keeping them around for the parts that require real human skill. There are a few other, infrastructure-based limitations to be worked out -- who puts the diesel in the autonomous semi in the middle of the night at a rural truck stop? But the Starsky Robotics approach seems to have a real chance of actually becoming a thing, even if it isn't the sexiest solution.
Now I just need to convince Starsky to let me remote drive a semi-truck. "For science."