If you were driving along the Florida Turnpike recently and happened to see a big rig motoring along without anyone behind the wheel, then no, your eyes were not deceiving you.
A system built by San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics powered the driverless truck to speeds of 55 mph along 9.4 miles of public road earlier this month. It’s thought to be the first time a heavy-duty commercial truck has been allowed on a public highway without anyone behind the wheel.
Starsky CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher said his company is competing with the likes of Waymo and TuSimple — which still use safety drivers in their autonomous trucks — by taking a different approach to how it incorporates its technology into large vehicles.
Instead of developing entirely autonomous systems to steer the trucks, the company is using remote human drivers to navigate the vehicles along more complicated sections of road between the depot and the highway.
As you can see in the video at the top, the driver uses a bank of monitors showing live-streamed footage from a bunch of cameras attached to the truck’s exterior, and steers the vehicle using a regular-looking steering wheel. Yes, it’s a bit like a video game, except there’s a massive truck somewhere far away that you’re actually controlling.
“We know that today, humans are far better at navigating many of the nuances of driving than even the most advanced computer systems, which is why we use remote drivers to help the trucks at their most contextually complex junctures,” Seltz-Axmacher wrote in a recent post.
The CEO added: “We’ve built a highly reliable highway automation system which we’ve combined with a teleoperation capability that allows our remote drivers to navigate trucks between distribution centers and the highway. This novel combination of complementary technologies — significantly improved, verified, and validated — is what has allowed us to make history.”
You might be wondering what the point is of having a driver in an office when he or she can be in the actual cab, but as Starsky’s technology develops and automated systems become more common, the likelihood is that fewer remote drivers will be needed. With truly driverless big rigs still some ways off, Starky’s system could be a bridge to such a time, and help to deal more immediately with the growing driver shortage affecting the truck industry.
Since its launch three years ago, Starsky has been moving steadily toward its recent accomplishment of driving an unmanned truck at 55 mph on a public highway, having already completed driverless trips with safety drivers, as well as a driverless outing last year that saw its truck reach 25 mph on the same Florida highway as the recent test, although it was closed to other traffic at the time.
Moving forward, Seltz-Axmacher says the plan is to increase the frequency of the unmanned drives and expand Starsky Robotic’s fleet of trucks to become “the most reliable driver in your rearview mirror,” as he puts it.