The U.S. Postal Service is testing its first long-haul self-driving delivery truck in a two-week pilot program that will use an autonomous tractor-trailer to deliver mail between distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas.
TuSimple, a self-driving truck company, is providing the vehicle and will have a safety engineer and driver in the cab to monitor its performance and take control if there are any issues, the company said in announcing the test Tuesday. The Postal Service has been exploring the idea for some time, recently soliciting bids to put semi-autonomous mail trucks on the road in a few years that allow a human to sort the mail while being autonomously driven along the route.
"We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology to accommodate a diverse mail mix, enhance safety, improve service, reduce emissions, and produce operational savings," said Postal Service spokeswoman Kim Frum.
The pilot program is limited, just five runs in late May. For TuSimple, the test drives are a chance to validate its vision of autonomous semis changing the dynamics and costs of long-haul trucking. The start-up has been hauling freight on I-10 in self-driving trucks since August. TuSimple, with 17 self-driving semis, has raised $178 million in four rounds of funding since it was founded in 2015.
"Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress," said Xiaodi Hou, founder, president and chief technology officer of TuSimple.
Autonomous trucking has become a hot area for private equity investors with start-ups like Boxbot Ike raising millions of dollars to develop the technology for self-driving semis. The appeal of the space is simple: Autonomous trucks could lower the cost of shipping goods by eliminating drivers.
While nobody expects regulators to approve driverless semis anytime soon, the potential is enormous. It's the reason manufacturers are working on self-driving semis. Tesla, which is developing an all-electric semi, has said all of its trucks will come with autopilot technology.
For the U.S. Postal Service, self-driving semis could provide a huge benefit. In 2018, the USPS had more than 5,500 tractors and trailers in its fleet.