The way that we ship and receive products, packages, and even mail is changing. Turn on the TV and you’ve probably seen FedEx’s ads for their new autonomous package-delivering robots. Amazon has been piloting Prime Air, a drone service that delivers packages to purchasers in 30 minutes or less. Advancing autonomous technology is already revolutionizing delivery services and the United States Postal Service (USPS) is the latest business to get in on this promising potential.

The USPS has partnered with TuSimple, an autonomous vehicle provider, and is running a pilot using autonomous trucks to ship mail between cities. This is the first time that the USPS has partnered with an autonomous vehicle provider and this pilot could transform long-haul transport throughout the entire country.

The USPS-TuSimple Pilot

The two-week pilot will test the performance of TuSimple trucks on long-haul trips between USPS distribution centers in Phoenix, Arizona and Dallas, Texas. Typically, USPS freight trailers carry mail and packages on the trip of over 1,000 miles, transporting bulk mail between distribution centers rather than providing the door-to-door delivery of smaller USPS vehicles. During the test, trucks will travel major interstates during five round trips between the Arizona and Dallas distribution centers. A safety engineer and driver will be on board in order to monitor the truck’s performance and help to keep the public safe.

TuSimple has been testing autonomous vehicles in Arizona since 2018 and has performed tests with 12 different cargo companies. TuSimple outfits trucks with self-driving technology that utilizes nine cameras. The company’s goal is to bring the first self-driving truck to market, and TuSimple’s 1,000-meter perception meter provides the system with 35 seconds of reaction time at highway speeds, making for increased safety.

What the Pilot Means for the Long-Haul Transport Industry

The pilot between the USPS and TuSimple is notable because of what it could mean for the long-haul transport industry as a whole. Should this pilot be a success and the USPS decide to use autonomous trucks for shipping, other major businesses are likely to follow suit, and we may see a number of the following changes to the long-haul transportation industry.

Increased Efficiency

TuSimple’s pilot with the USPS could solve a particularly challenging transportation issue. Because this route is 22 hours one-way, it requires a team of drivers, both due to safety and to trucking hours-of-service rules. Finding drivers who are willing to take on that type of a route is challenging and makes the route an inefficient (and more expensive) run.

These autonomous trucks could perform the run in one continuous drive, only stopping for fuel. The technology would eliminate the need to hire and schedule multiple drivers, and technology doesn’t suffer fatigue or need breaks as human drivers do. Unlike a driver, who needs to stop to sleep, autonomous trucks could run around the clock, taking advantage of reduced traffic at night and potentially shearing the time for a coast-to-coast trip in half. This could mean fewer mail delays and, when applied to other businesses, faster freight shipments across the country. When shipping time-sensitive items, like food or medical supplies, faster shipping can be a significantly valuable factor.

Solving the Truck Driver Shortage

The trucking industry faces a shortage of qualified truck drivers and that’s part of what makes it difficult for the USPS to find suitable pairs of drivers who can take on the route between Arizona and Texas.

According to the American Trucking Association, in 2016, the for-hire truck driving industry faced a shortage of approximately 36,500 drivers. Based on data from previous years, the American Trucking Association predicts that we could see a shortage of 174,500 drivers by 2024. Factors such as regulations, driver demographics, the availability of alternative jobs and the fact that drivers must spend periods of time away from home all contribute to this shortage. Without enough drivers, the country could see shipping delays in medical supplies, mail and virtually any product that is transported by truck.

Autonomous trucks could help to solve that issue. In this case, the USPS could potentially send autonomous trucks out on this long-haul route, eliminating the difficulty of finding pairs of drivers who can run that route. These autonomous vehicles would free up drivers to run routes that the technology isn’t yet ready for, such as those that travel into crowded cities or small towns or those that include last mile house-to-house deliveries.

Lower Shipping Costs

Using autonomous technology could help to reduce shipping costs as well. Because drivers are in demand and the country faces a shortage of drivers, hiring drivers for routes such as this USPS pilot route is expensive. With fewer drivers to hire, self-driving trucks could save businesses significant amounts in payroll, health insurance, workman’s comp insurance and more.

TuSimple notes that autonomous trucks could also reduce fuel costs. Part of this pilot’s purpose is to determine the exact monetary savings that autonomous trucks could offer the USPS when used for long-distance runs.

Increased Use of Autonomous Truck Shipping

This two-week pilot is only the beginning of testing autonomous trucks for long-haul shipping. However, long-haul shipping offers some advantages that are conducive to the use of autonomous technology.  

With long-haul shipping, most driving takes place on major highways. Pedestrians and cyclists are less of a concern and mapping needs are reduced. Snow poses a particular challenge to autonomous vehicles, but strategic route selection means autonomous trucks can operate in states or areas that do not have or receive snow. Should the USPS pilot be successful, TuSimple has plans to eventually implement driverless operations so that human drivers can focus on shorter routes that are closer to home. This pilot could be the first step to a major renovation to the long-haul shipping industry.