Florida Roads Could See Autonomous Trucks Next Year

A state law taking effect July 1 makes no requirement that the traveling public be made aware of the autonomous semi they share the road with or that the trucks be tested, inspected or certified before being deployed.

by Ron Hurtibise, Sun Sentinel / June 14, 2019
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(TNS) — Driverless semi-trucks could be sharing Florida highways as early as next year, and there will be no requirement that surrounding motorists know it.

Nor will autonomous driving systems need to be tested, inspected, or certified before being deployed under a new state law that takes effect July 1.

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Starsky Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup company that’s been testing its driverless trucking technology in Florida and Texas, has put out a call for job applicants who one day want to pilot big rigs remotely.

Starsky envisions its remote drivers logging onto computers in an office environment to take the reins of its trucks during the first and last miles of their long hauls.

That means the trucks will be on autopilot for the vast majority of their highway journeys.

Driverless deployments should begin in Florida by the end of 2020, Starsky says.

That’s much sooner than 2027, the year consulting firm McKinsey & Company projects fully driverless trucks will be ready to hit the highway.

This brave new world is brought to you by a new state law authorizing driverless transportation networks to operate on public roads without the presence of human drivers in the vehicles.

On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill enacting the law in a ceremony at SunTrax, the state’s new autonomous vehicle testing track in Auburndale.

While the law will also open the door for ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to deploy fleets for commuter use, DeSantis’ signing ceremony was staged in front of a Starsky-branded semi-truck. Starsky demonstrated its technology during the event, the company said.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Fischer, a Duval County Republican, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the new law replaces an existing one that required a human driver be present and able to take over driving chores in autonomous vehicles operating on public property for any other reason than testing.

Brandes, Fischer and other proponents of driverless vehicle technology say automated systems will make transportation safer by removing the potential for human error. Driverless technology proponents envision a day in the not-too-distant future in which most driving becomes automated, freeing commuters to stare into their smartphones or their dashboard video screens.

Safeguards in the new state law are limited.

Companies will be allowed to deploy their systems with no state inspection or certification.

“Companies [that] wish to operate in the state can do so as long as they are in compliance with any applicable federal regulations and the insurance requirements outlined in state law,” said Beth Frady, communications director for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Owners of autonomous commercial vehicles will be required to carry at least as much liability insurance as the state requires for commercial vehicles driven by humans. Currently, that means a minimum level of $300,000 in combined bodily liability and property damage coverage for trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 44,000 pounds or more, and lesser amounts for lighter vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles used for “on-demand” networks must be covered for at least $1 million for death, bodily injury and property damage, the law states.

Autonomous vehicles also will be required to achieve what’s called “minimal risk condition” — such as coming to a complete stop and activating their hazard lights — if their operating systems fail.

Existing traffic laws requiring drivers to promptly notify law enforcement agencies of crashes and then remain on scene to provide information or render aid will be exempted if law enforcement is notified by a vehicle’s owner or by the vehicle’s automated system.

After a Senate committee hearing in March to consider the new law, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, prevailed in her push to require owners of autonomous vehicles to carry insurance and be held responsible when vehicles fail to operate as intended.

But she was unsuccessful in her call for a requirement for some sort of signal to passengers and surrounding motorists that the vehicle is operating in the autonomous mode.

In the hearing, Dale Swope, lobbyist for the Florida Justice Association, a plaintiffs attorney trade group, brought up a recent deadly crash involving a Tesla operating in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode as evidence that autonomous systems aren’t yet fully 100 percent safe.

At the federal Department of Transportation, autonomous vehicle policies are still in development.

Through a process it calls Automated Vehicles 3.0, the department is soliciting input from public and private entities to develop “a flexible, responsible approach to a framework for multimodal automation,” according to a letter from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao published in a recent document that offers best practices for future infrastructure and regulatory planning.

Asked how Starsky Robotics plans to assure Floridians of the safety of the company’s driverless trucks, Starsky founder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher said only that the company, founded in 2016, has been working with all relevant authorities, including the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Turnpike Authority, and those agencies’ federal counterparts.

The company has also developed a “Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment,” based on recommendations from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, that will guide how its vehicles will react to unforeseen circumstances.

Starsky this week launched a campaign titled “The future of driverless trucking is not driverless” to attract recruits willing to drive in its fleet of 36 traditional over-the-road rigs before — if they make the cut — transitioning to the autonomous truck side. Those drivers will work at a computer in a fixed location and go home to their families between shifts, the company said.

In Florida, the company will locate its remote drivers at its facility in Jacksonville, a spokeswoman said.

The company currently has three trucks capable of autonomous operation but expects to have up to 25 by next year as it begins removing human drivers. Florida will be among the first states where it will run driverless trucks, but Seltz-Axmacher declined, in an interview, to pinpoint when he expected that to begin.

The company completed a seven-mile driverless test on a closed-off rural road near Lake Okeechobee in February 2018. It expects to conduct another test sometime this year, Seltz-Axmacher said.

Meanwhile, the company has been testing its technology in Florida using “safety drivers” who can take the wheel if something goes wrong, he said. “We do a lot of tests on Florida roads with a person behind the wheel so when we take the person out, we can be sure it is with utmost safety,” he said.

Starsky isn’t the only automated truck operator preparing to hit the nation’s highways.

Propelled by the rapid growth of e-commerce, retailers such as Amazon are busy automating as much of their supply and delivery chains as possible, and shipping is a major cost component ripe for disruption, according to a December report by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Many modern rigs are outfitted with the kinds of sensors, cameras and other technology that enable them to operate with minimal human intervention, the report said.

Trucks with no driver could be possible by 2022, platooning behind trucks with drivers, according to the firm’s McKinsey Center for Future Mobility. Driverless trucks in platoons of two or more would follow beginning about 2025, with drivers boarding them on interstate highways to bring them into town. But McKinsey doesn’t expect driver involvement to be eliminated from all parts of the journey until 2027.

Other companies working on driverless truck technology include Daimler Trucks, part of the Daimler Automotive Group that makes Mercedes-Benz vehicles, Tesla Semi, plus startups Embark and TuSimple.

While workers in many industries don’t want robots taking their jobs, trucking is a different story, the company says.

Keeping drivers on the road for a month at a time has become a huge problem for the trucking industry, he said. The turnover rate at large carriers averaged 89 percent in 2018 — two points higher than the previous year, according to the American Trucking Association.

Consumers’ demand for cheap goods and cheap shipping costs means haulers want to pay truck drivers cheap wages. That contributes to a 60,000-driver shortage in the U.S., Starsky said in a news release.

Even $50,000 to $60,000 a year isn’t enough "to get someone to spend a month at a time in a truck,” Seltz-Axmacher wrote in his blog this week. “The only way to solve this problem is to get a person out of a cab.”

The CEO said Starsky uses its manually operated trucking company to identify freight lanes “that will be perfect for autonomous vehicles in the future.”

The company’s goal of having 25 autonomous trucks by early next year won’t be possible unless the company has 100 regular trucks, he wrote. “It simply wouldn’t be possible to find 25 highly-skilled safety and remote drivers without having a broader fleet of regular truck drivers from which to choose.”

©2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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