In Starsky Robotics’ vision of autonomous driving, a driver would sit in a control room and manage multiple vehicles while over-the-road, taking control and driving those vehicles in local, last-mile operations.

Do autonomous trucks need drivers

Starsky Robotics’ says its approach would create more local jobs for drivers

There is a lot of fear among drivers that they are being displaced by autonomous vehicles, and plenty of companies building these vehicles are looking to do just that. But one company is approaching the autonomous space with an eye on keeping drivers employed and improving their lives.

Starsky Robotics jumped into the limelight earlier this year with its exit from stealth mode and debuted its vision of the autonomous truck. And unlike competitors such as Uber’s Otto, Daimler Truck’s Freightliner Inspiration tractor, or Embark, Starsky is not building a self-driving truck that removes the driver from the vehicle altogether. Instead, it is building a retrofit kit that it said will keep drivers employed, just not in the truck.

“If [removing the driver] becomes the way you view the universe of autonomous trucks, then if you don’t take the driver out of the truck, you don’t have a product,” co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher tells FreightWaves.

Seltz-Axmacher says that he became interested in trucking when, as a college student, he took a visit to Mack Trucks’ Allentown, PA, facility. In early 2016, he hooked up with Kartik Tiwari and formed Starsky Robotics.

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His experience at that Mack plant intrigued him enough that he set out to learn more about the trucking industry. He quickly discovered what so many in the industry already know — there are not enough drivers.

“It is really, really hard to get a human being to spend a month in a truck,” Seltz-Axmacher explains, adding that the solitary lifestyle of a long-haul trucker is just not appealing to many people. “If we are successful, we can solve the driver shortage.”

What Starsky Robotics is building differs from competitors in the approach. It is a retrofit kit that sits on a Freightliner Cascadia and handles vehicle driving during long hauls through a collection of radar, sensors, cameras and software. In Seltz-Axmacher’s scenario, a “driver” sits in a room somewhere and monitors up to 18 to 20 trucks out on the road at a time. Using video cameras and vehicle controls such as a steering wheel, that driver is able to take control of a vehicle if necessary through a seamless switch of vehicle control. The driver will also drive the vehicle from the control room during the “last mile” of deliveries. That means that while there is no physical driver in the vehicle, there is a driver in control of the vehicle.

“Which means we can provide a better lifestyle for the driver,” Seltz-Axmacher explains. “They could service different vehicles as those vehicles are getting on and off the highway.”

Drivers could put in 8-hour days monitoring vehicles on the road and return home each night following their shift. Trucks could run potentially up to 24 hours a day, drastically increasing productivity for fleets.

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Of course, this concept does in fact take drivers out of the vehicle and with a single driver in a control room monitoring multiple vehicles, the end effect would be a decrease in the number of drivers needed. Seltz-Axmacher acknowledges that, but believes that if the driver shortage problem “went away, I think the overall market would grow pretty significantly.”

The quality of the driver jobs left, though, would increase. “I think if you offer a driver high quality of life, good pay, and respect them, that will work well,” he adds.

Starsky Robotics is currently testing vehicles in Michigan, Nevada and Florida. A vehicle has already moved a 5,000-lb. load 140 miles, with 120 of those miles driven autonomously. It has also been tested successfully in a local yard moving trailers without a driver in the vehicle.

The California-based startup currently employs 19 people, but expects to expand as the system gets closer to production.

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Here’s another benefit to trucking fleets looking for fill jobs — under Seltz-Axmacher’s vision, it wouldn’t be the fleet’s responsibility. Fleets would contract with Starsky Robotics, which would hire and employ the drivers. Seltz-Axmacher says this is simply so they don’t have to spend resources training thousands of fleet drivers across the country on the technology.

Cost to operate one of the vehicle’s would “be a similar per mile charge as a driver,” he predicts. “Our system would be driving that truck from point A to point B,” Seltz-Axmacher notes. “How much of that would be autonomous and how much would be staffed would depend on the route.”

The entire system is also being developed using available technologies, although that was not done to keep costs down, Seltz-Axmacher says. “When it comes to safety, we are not looking to save a few dollars,” he says. “[What] we’ve tried to do is make everything as practical as possible so when we need to make 10,000 units, we can.”

For trucking fleets, the Starsky Robotics approach may be the choice going forward; there is still vehicle control and there is still professional drivers in control. And with a similar charge to what drivers are being paid currently, the upfront costs are likely to be much smaller than other autonomous options.

That is the sales pitch that Starsky Robotics hopes delivers its vision of trucking’s future.