The US Postal Service is working with a self-driving truck company to test autonomous mail deliveries along a key route in the Southwest. Over two weeks, autonomous trucks from the startup TuSimple will perform five round trips between the USPS's distribution centers in Phoenix, Arizona and Dallas, Texas.
Founded in 2015, TuSimple is already operating self-driving trucks out of Tucson, Arizona as it develops commercial-ready Level autonomous driving technology for the logistics industry. As defined by SAE International, Level 4 autonomy means a vehicle can perform all driving tasks, without the help of a human, in certain conditions. Level 5 autonomy represents full autonomy, with no driver needed.
During the USPS pilot, the trucks will have a safety engineer and driver on board to monitor vehicle performance and ensure public safety. The trucks will drive for 22 hours at a time along the I-10, I-20 and I-30 corridors through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. According to TuSimple, the freight that flows along I-10 corridor accounts for 60 percent of the total economic activity in the US.
The USPS said that it's testing out autonomous delivery trucks to potentially reduce fuel costs, increase safe truck operation and improve its fleet utilization rate through longer hours of operation.
"This pilot is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future," the USPS said in a statement, noting that the organization relies on the sale of postage, products and services for funding -- not US tax dollars.
While consumers may hear more news about the development of self-driving cars, the $800 billion US trucking industry is primed for early adoption of autonomous technology. Congestion costs the industry billions each year, while trucks are responsible for thousands and deaths and injuries. Autonomous vehicles could mitigate those problems.
The technology could also go a long way in addressing the industry's driver shortage -- which is expected to reach 175,000 by 2024, according to the American Trucking Association. Long-haul routes such as the drive between Phoenix and Dallas are particularly well-suited for autonomous vehicles, since they normally require driving teams of two, TuSimple noted. Finding drivers who can accomplish the route together, driving overnight and sharing close quarters, can be a challenge.