We've come a long way from the Pony Express. The U.S. Postal Service said last week that it will test autonomous long-haul mail delivery trucks in the relatively remote stretch between Phoenix and Dallas.
The USPS said that San Diego-based TuSimple won the contract to self self-driving semi trucks on the 1,000-mile round-trip trek between distribution centers in the two southwestern cities. In total, the trucks will make five round trips over a two week pilot program.
TuSimple called the pilot test a milestone in the commercial self-driving vehicle segment. According to the company, 60 percent of total economic activity in the U.S. takes places on the Interstate 10 corridor—the main artery the trucks will travel along in Arizona, New Mexico, and some of Texas.
Self-driving vehicles are legal in Arizona and they require a human safety driver in Texas. New Mexico is one of a number of states with no legislation to address autonomous cars.
In this case, long-haul routes with quick turnaround times are perfectly suited for autonomous vehicles. Normally, a team of two humans would tackle the drive the autonomous trucks will handle. However, the 22-hour journey is difficult since it requires overnight driving. The second driver stays in the truck's cab on backup.
Finding truck drivers is proving challenging, too. The American Trucking Association has said that it predicts a major truck driver shortage within the next five years.
The technology on the self-driving semi is rated at Level 4, or "High Automation," on the Society of Automotive Engineers autonomy scale. Level 4 means that there are backup controls but the human monitoring the system doesn't need to pay rapt attention. There will be a safety engineer onboard the truck to ensure everything goes smoothly while the trucks shuttle mail between the two USPS distribution centers.