Autonomous Trucks to Carry U.S. Mail Between Phoenix and Dallas in Test

TuSimple, which has been testing autonomous big rigs between Phoenix and Tucson, will now begin delivering U.S. mail between Dallas and Phoenix in a pilot program.
TuSimple, which has been testing autonomous big rigs between Phoenix and Tucson, will now begin delivering U.S. mail between Dallas and Phoenix in a pilot program. Courtesy of TuSimple
Do robotic dogs dream of chasing autonomous postal trucks?

The trucks, at least, will be a reality starting today. In a new partnership between the U.S. Postal Service and an autonomous vehicle company, TuSimple semi trucks will begin delivering mail today between Phoenix and Dallas, the company said.

"We are going to the postal distribution center in Phoenix to its counterpart in Dallas," TuSimple spokesman told Phoenix New Times in an email. "I think we will stay in the AZ, NM, TX for the immediate future. But we are keeping a close eye on further east."

The two-week pilot program will use autonomous big rigs from TuSimple to haul mail trailers in several round trips between the cities' distribution centers, a 22-hour, 1,000-mile route.

TuSimple has already been running its trucks on the highways to and from Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales, and El Paso, Texas. Brown would only say about that program that it was "going well." He didn't have any performance data from those routes "handy" he could share with the public, but said the new Phoenix-Dallas route would generate some new data.

The trucks used by TuSimple, a China-backed company based in San Diego, have "camera-centric" detection systems that can see up to 1,000 meters in the distance.

The postal service said it expected the trucks to improve its efficiency at delivering what most Americans now call "snail mail."

"This pilot is just one of many ways the Postal Service is innovating and investing in its future," the postal service said in a media statement.

"We are conducting research and testing as part of our 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."

The inexorable advance of autonomous technology probably means few truck drivers will be able to finds jobs in the future. For now, though, it takes more people, not fewer, to pilot an autonomous 18-wheeler. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Relay teams of safety drivers and engineers will ride along in the company’s retrofitted Peterbilt trucks during the pilot, and will swap out when the vehicles stop at weigh stations or to refuel.

“The driver in the left seat is constantly eyes out of the vehicle, understanding what’s happening in the environment,” Mr. Price said. “The right seat is reporting to the driver what the autonomous system is detecting and what it is intending to do in the near future.”

The trucks can reportedly steer their way through surface streets, but typically have their autonomous capability on only when on the highway.

Waymo, Nuro, and other autonomous vehicle-makers continue to call Arizona home for testing on public roads, which Governor Doug Ducey has cleared of bureaucratic obstructions. Uber still hasn't returned to the state since the March 2018 crash that claimed the life of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe. The backup driver in that crash, Rafaela Vasquez, still faces potential charges: Her mobile phone was streaming a TV show at the time of the crash, and internal video in the Uber vehicle shows she wasn't looking at the road before impact.

Tempe police said last week that the case is still under investigation. Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk previously cleared Uber of any wrongdoing in the crash.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern