The U.S. Postal Service has started experimenting with self-driving trucks in a two-week test transporting mail across three Southwestern states. According to Reuters, the USPS is partnering with San Diego-based TuSimple in a two-week pilot program focusing on a 1,000-mile route between Dallas and Phoenix.
Chuck Price, the chief product officer of TuSimple, says the pilot program will help the USPS become future-ready and accommodate a diverse mail mix. The aim of the test is to reduce carbon emissions, increase operational savings, enhance safety, and improve service.
Approximately 12 million trucks, locomotives, rail cars, and vessels move goods across the U.S. transportation network, and about 500,000 refrigerated trailers are in operation on U.S. roads.
Although 13% of the world’s steel is used in the automotive industry and much of that steel is recycled, the vehicles themselves produce much of the country’s carbon emissions. By using self-driving trucks to make deliveries, the USPS can use fewer delivery vehicles.
The pilot program will involve five round trips. The self-driving trucks will travel across major interstates, which cross Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Each vehicle has a safety engineer on board during the trip to ensure public safety and monitor vehicle performance.
However, Price points out that having a human driver onboard the self-driving trucks during the program is challenging even if it does ensure public safety.
“[It’s] 22 hours in one direction,” said Price. “[That] requires teams of drivers and it’s very hard to recruit drivers into this kind of run.”
Price points out that the length of the run is why autonomous vehicles are being developed for truck deliveries, in particular. Unlike self-driving passenger vehicles, self-driving trucks aim to take care of the long runs that are beyond the range of a single human driver.
The USPS typically contracts long-haul trips involving large freight trailers. These trailers carry thousands of pieces of mail, which reduces the number of small trucks that need to make door-to-door deliveries.
But this will be the first time the USPS uses self-driving vehicles for a long-haul trip, and it will also be the first time TuSimple runs through Texas. TuSimple, a commercial freight moving company, has been operating self-driving trucks in Arizona since 2018 but hasn’t yet moved to other states because of state regulations.
Depending on the success of the pilot program, the USPS may soon consider using self-driving vehicles for home deliveries.
One idea that has been discussed by the service is a vehicle that follows behind a mail carrier while they walk a route. This would reduce how much mail the carrier needs to carry on their own, which would increase productivity and reduce health risks.
It’s currently unclear how much the pilot program will cost to run. But the USPS has stressed that it doesn’t receive tax dollars for operating its expenses or running the pilot program.
“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” said Kim Frum, the spokesperson for the USPS. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”