Starsky Robotics Becomes One of the First With a Fully-Drivers Semi-Truck

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【Summary】Starsky Robotics out of San Francisco recently completed a seven-mile stretch of road in Florida with its autonomous semi-truck, but the run didn’t go exactly as planned.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Apr 24, 2018 10:30 AM PT
Starsky Robotics Becomes One of the First With a Fully-Drivers Semi-Truck

When it comes to autonomous semi-trucks, Uber makes the most headlines with its futuristically-styled, all-electric trucks. While those vehicles have just started to be delivered, another company made some waves after having one of its eighteen-wheelers complete a fully-autonomous journey. 

That may not sound impressive, as Uber recently set out to have its driverless big rigs complete a journey across Arizona, but those vehicles had someone behind the wheel of the machine, ready to take over at any time. A startup based out of San Francisco decided to do something bigger and recently completed a trip where no one was behind the wheel of one of its semi-trucks. 

Starsky Robotics Makes A Bang

As Car and Driver reports, Starsky Robotics, brought its fully-autonomous eighteen-wheeler to Florida to see how it would perform on public roads. While the trip went well, it wasn't exactly a hiccup-free run. The outlet penned an extensive report on the milestone run for the brand.

Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, the founder of Starsky Robotics, and the team at the startup had been working on their autonomous technology for approximately two years before unleashing the vehicles on public roads. The original plan was to run the semi-truck down a seven-mile stretch of road along Country Road 833 without anyone behind the wheel. After completing the first two miles without a problem, the truck came to a halt in its lane.

"I'm thinking, ‘This is not planned,'" said Seltz-Axmacher. "And so we get out and turn off the engine and start investigating." Understandably, the team was perplexed, as they had spent a fair amount of time doing dry runs in the same area. The problem, though, highlights an important aspect of autonomous cars — things are bound to go wrong at some point. 

The outlet states that the test, which was conducted in the middle of February, came to a premature halt in the middle of the road when Starsky Robotics' remote operations team in Plantation, Fla. lost power. The loss in juice resulted in the semi-truck losing its signal and going into a safe mode. That caused the truck to come to a halt in its lane. 

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While it wasn't what the team wanted to see, it did reveal that the autonomous machine knew what to do when things went wrong. "Of all the different flaws that could have happened, all those things we tested and expected, we never tested shutting down the power to the building," said Seltz-Axmacher. "But by having this safety architecture in place, you are able to be confident that if a failure happens, even weird failures that have never happened to us before, we ill catch them. If we catch them, we will come to a stop." 

Once power was restored to the building, the semi-truck continued on its journey in fully-autonomous mode and completed the rest of the five-mile trip without any issues. The outlet states that the company returned to the same stretch of road the next day and managed to travel the full seven miles without an incident. 

A Startup Sets The Pace

As Car and Driver claims, this is believed to be the first test where a fully-driverless semi-truck was on public roads. And for both days of testing, the startup company worked hand-in-hand with Florida's law enforcement and officials to ensure that roads were temporarily shut down or made it possible for the trucks to operate away from regular traffic. That was probably good thinking on everyone's parts, as having a semi come to a halt in the middle of traffic wouldn't have gone over too well. The tests were conducted at 35 mph and, according to Seltz-Axmacher, were a major step forward for autonomous semis. 

"It's a huge deal for us, and a really big sign of how serious we are," he said. "The other teams have not done that. We can test all day long with someone behind the wheel and everyone could just focus on testing reliability and growing a feature set of what their system can do. They can make each thing reliable enough that it doesn't fail often — but if it does, it can be controlled be the person behind the wheel." 

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Before unleashing its autonomous semis onto Florida's roads, Starsky Robotics was just beginning to use its self-driving machines to haul commercial freight. Car and Driver states that the company transported bottled water to those that were affected by Hurricane Irma in Florida. That journey, though, which saw the machines travel 68 miles between Fort Myers and Miami, was done with a driver behind the wheel that was ready to take over. 

As one would expect, the company's incredible progression has garnered a lot of attention from venture-capital firms. As the outlet states, Shasta Ventures led a funding road that raised $16.5 million and includes investments from Y Combinator, 9Point Ventures, Trucks Venture Capital, and Fifty Years. 

As far as the rest of 2018 goes, Seltz-Azmacher claims that the company wants to increase the number of unmanned tests and hopes to have actual freight in the semis during the runs. While the company is based out of San Francisco, testing will continue to be completed in Florida, as California prohibits the testing of autonomous vehicles that weigh more than 10,001 pounds. California, though, has made it okay for vehicles that weigh less than that amount to test without a driver behind the wheel. 

Despite being a startup, Starsky Robotics have something that no other brand does when it comes to semi-trucks — actual testing without a driver. That's something that other brands will take some time to replicate. 

via: Car and Driver

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