The U.S. Postal Service, starting Tuesday, is partnering with autonomous truck company TuSimple on a two-week pilot project that will automate trips between distribution hubs in Dallas and Phoenix.
Three of TuSimple's big rigs will make five round trips over two weeks, hauling trailers filled with mail and examining the potential of automated hauling mainly along Interstate 10, a linchpin of freight movement in the United States.
The trucks are on I-10 for much of the route, but they also contain portions of I-20 and I-30 in Texas.
Long-haul routes on interstates through regulatory-friendly states and weather-friendly conditions are expected to be some of the first practical uses of automated systems, so the small-scale pilot project could portend more widespread deployments down the road.
"This is our first real run that kind of stretches our legs," said Robert Brown, director of public affairs at TuSimple. "It's a sweet spot for autonomy."
Though the two-person crews will adhere to hours-of-service limits during the project, switching drivers at various points during the 22-hour journey, the trucks will complete the 1,065-mile journey without much of a reprieve. That will allow the Postal Service and TuSimple to better understand operations on lengthy routes that cross jurisdictional boundaries at various times of day.
Human safety drivers remain a vital component of the testing. Further afield, TuSimple expects to launch fully self-driving operations, without safety drivers, in late 2020 or 2021. The company has more than 50 trucks in its fleet. With its U.S. headquarters in San Diego, the company has set up a testing base in Tucson, Ariz., from which it has contracted with multiple companies to carry goods within the state.
The Postal Service is its first public customer. If the trial goes smoothly, Brown expressed hope the Postal Service might agree to a long-term contract.
"We left it at, 'Let's see how this pilot goes,' " he said. "Going from there, ... there's room and potential to continue this relationship. For the Postal Service, automation is a good business model. They have tight delivery windows with next-day and two-day shipping. Once you can remove hourly service constraints, that's when it gets incredibly interesting."
Interstates in general, and I-10 in particular, are expected to be early hot spots for automated trucking. In 2016, officials from the departments of transportation in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California formed the Interstate 10 Corridor Coalition to explore the possibilities of coordinating rules and regulations for connected and automated vehicles over multiple jurisdictions.
"It's a major freight thoroughfare, because of its proximity to Los Angeles and Long Beach, and those are the biggest freight-handling ports in the country," said Greg Winfree, executive director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. "I-10 becomes the main east-west way to move that product into the heartland and spread it around."
California regulations do not permit testing of automated technology in vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 pounds. For practical purposes, that limits the testing of self-driving trucks on public roads. While the state has more than 60 companies testing self-driving cars, trucking companies must look elsewhere for public-road test grounds, and places such as Florida, Texas and Arizona have proved popular.
A Postal Service spokeswoman said the TuSimple pilot project will enhance 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."