Starsky Robotics Begins Fully-Unmanned Public Highway Tests
I’m thrilled to announce that as of June 16th, 2019 Starsky Robotics has begun testing fully unmanned trucks on public highways. We made history by completing our first public unmanned test, driving a heavy-duty commercial truck for 9.4 miles along Florida’s Turnpike with no one in it: successfully navigating a rest area, merging onto the highway, changing lanes, and keeping a speed of 55 mph. All without a human on-board. It went so smoothly that few of the other road users realized that they were a part of making history. You can watch below:
At Starsky, we are taking a distinctly unique approach to automation and safety. We aren’t building fully autonomous trucks designed to operate without any human intervention or relying exclusively on computers to make every driving decision. 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.
We’ve been able to leapfrog far larger, and better funded, competitors because of our unique and pragmatic approach. Rather than being beholden to the dogma of building a technically pure general autonomy system, we’ve been focused on building a product. The problem is that there aren’t enough people willing to spend a month at a time in a truck, which makes it more important for the solution to be unmanned than purely autonomous. To that end, 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.
This isn’t just a massive accomplishment for Starsky, but for the broader autonomy industry. Whether its AVs designed as urban robotaxis or long-haul trucks developed to solve the driver shortage, the autonomy industry is only really successful if it can make vehicles capable of driving on public roads fully unmanned.
Despite tens of thousands of articles and press releases, barely a handful companies have ever so much as taken the person out of the vehicle in a parking lot. And to our knowledge, no one had ever driven on a public highway with an unmanned vehicle. Until now.
Small Wins and Big Goals
We’ve come a long way. We first came out of stealth after hauling a load with an automated truck on the very same route as we referenced above. In February 2017, we hauled our first automated load on Florida’s Turnpike. Later that year we were able to complete our first end-to-end zero disengagement run hauling freight: a 68 mile trip where the safety driver wasn’t needed from beginning to end getting bottles of water from Point A to Point B to aid in the Hurricane Irma recovery effort.
Just a few months later, in February 2018, we became the first company to take the safety driver out of our truck when we drove fully unmanned for seven miles at 25 mph on a closed road in Florida.
We learned a lot from that test. Last month, we were able to repeat it but at a much higher speed. Starsky set a record for the fastest unmanned road-legal vehicle, when our truck hit 55 mph with nobody on-board during a test on a closed portion of the Selmon Expressway outside Tampa.
Each of these steps have brought us closer to our goal, but it still wouldn’t be possible to achieve it without being fully confident in safety.
Nothing Is More Important Than Safety
We move fast, but only because of a firm foundation in functional safety. When done right, functional safety allows an engineering team to move more quickly because they better understand the risks each part of the system faces.
For Starsky, safety isn’t something that’s added on top of the rest of our system after we’ve gotten everything else buttoned up. Safety is a deliberate design goal from the beginning of each components’ development. Before the team starts writing code, it starts writing FMEAs. We’ve been able to develop this culture because the first step we took after our Series A was bringing an experienced Safety Lead on board and to ensure that safety lies at the heart of everything we do.
In December 2018, we became the first automated trucking company to publish a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment (VSSA). As opposed to the hand-wavey brochures we had seen released before, we wrote an in-depth technical report that provides real insights into our approach to systems engineering and functional safety. It communicates detailed, specific information about our safety procedures and design process.
Working with Regulators
Having grown up outside DC, I’ve always seen regulators not as some alien enemy, but as the people I grew up going to church with. I didn’t realize how uncommon that was until I came to San Francisco where successful government affairs seemed to mean exerting pressure and begging for forgiveness, rather than asking for permission.
I’m extremely proud that isn’t the approach we’ve taken at Starsky.
We’ve been benefiting from the incredible insight of public servants at the national and state levels since before I even had a co-founder. We see government entities as a valuable partner in making sure we’re testing our technology in the most responsible way possible.
Public officials at every level have been critical in helping us see around corners, understand faults in our thinking, and facilitate safe testing and deployment. It was county officials that provided us a closed road for our first unmanned test, highway authorities that work with us to provide a safe environment for minimal risk and induced failure testing, and leaders in state legislatures who began thinking about the creation of sound legal frameworks for AVs, even before industry players. In gearing up for our first public unmanned test, we briefed government officials up and down the chain, and we highly value their expertise and hard work toward the realization of our shared vision: making U.S. roadways more safe.
A Great Team, That’s Growing
We’ve only gotten to this point because our team has been on overdrive since day one. And, while we’ll take a few weeks to refill our tanks, we have a lot of exciting things coming down the pike.
Over the next months and years, you’ll start to see an accelerated pace of testing on our side, as we work towards Unmanned Regular Service. For some time, it will be the occasional unmanned truck on the rarefied road. In time it will pick up. Unmanned tests will go from once a quarter to once a month to once a week to every day. We’ll expand the size of the fleet, increase the driving conditions where we can operate safely, and eventually come to be the most reliable driver in your rearview mirror.
It won’t be easy to get there, but we can with your help. We need great engineers and operations professionals of all sorts. We’re continuing to build our regular trucking fleet to find those drivers who want to help build the future of trucking.
Join us, and help us conquer the open road.
Keepin’ on truckin’