Self-driving trucks begin mail delivery test for U.S. Postal Service

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

By Heather Somerville

(Reuters) – The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday started a two-week test transporting mail across three Southwestern states using self-driving trucks, a step forward in the effort to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology for hauling freight.

San Diego-based startup TuSimple said its self-driving trucks will begin hauling mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to see how the nascent technology might improve delivery times and costs. A safety driver will sit behind the wheel to intervene if necessary and an engineer will ride in the passenger seat.

If successful, it would mark an achievement for the autonomous driving industry and a possible solution to the driver shortage and regulatory constraints faced by freight haulers across the country.

The pilot program involves five round trips, each totaling more than 2,100 miles (3,380 km) or around 45 hours of driving. It is unclear whether self-driving mail delivery will continue after the two-week pilot.

“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum said. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”

TuSimple and the USPS declined to disclose the cost of the program, but Frum said no tax dollars were used and the agency relies on revenue from sales of postage and other products. TuSimple has raised $178 million in private financing, including from chipmaker Nvidia Corp and Chinese online media company Sina Corp.

The trucks will travel on major interstates and pass through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

“This run is really in the sweet spot of how we believe autonomous trucks will be used,” said TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price. “These long runs are beyond the range of a single human driver, which means today if they do this run they have to figure out how to cover it with multiple drivers in the vehicle.”

The goal is to eliminate the need for a driver, freeing shippers and freight-haulers from the constraints of a worsening driver shortage. The American Trucking Associations estimates a shortage of as many as 174,500 drivers by 2024, due to an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger drivers.

A new safety law requiring truck drivers to electronically log their miles has further constrained how quickly and efficiently fleets can move goods.

TuSimple’s tie-up with the USPS marks an achievement for the fledgling self-driving truck industry, and follows Swedish company Einride’s entry into freight delivery using driverless electric trucks on a public road, announced last week.

The developments contrast with retrenching efforts by robotaxi companies such as General Motors Co unit Cruise, Uber Technologies Inc and startup Drive.ai, which have stumbled in building self-driving cars that can anticipate and respond to humans and navigate urban areas, an expensive and technologically challenging feat.

Price said self-driving trucks have advantages over passenger cars, including the relative ease of operating on interstates compared with city centers, which reduces mapping requirements and safety challenges involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

(Reporting by Heather Somerville in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. Postal Service loss triples, even as package deliveries rise

FILE PHOTO: A view shows U.S. postal service mail boxes at a post office in Encinitas, California February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Postal Service lost almost $4 billion in 2018 even as package deliveries rose, according to results released on Wednesday, giving U.S. President Donald Trump potential ammunition against Amazon.com Inc, which he claims pays too little for the agency’s services.

Trump, without presenting evidence, has attacked Amazon repeatedly over the past year, accusing the world’s largest online retailer of taking advantage of USPS by not paying enough for deliveries to make the service profitable.

USPS, an independent agency within the federal government, reported operating revenue of $70.6 billion for fiscal year 2018, which ended on Sept. 30, as sales at its shipping and packages business rose 10 percent.

However, its net loss more than tripled to $3.9 billion from a loss of $1.2 billion in 2017, hurt by rising pay and benefits and higher transport costs, such as gas prices.

Package delivery, especially for major customer Amazon, has become a key part of USPS’s business but has not been enough to offset the sharp decline in first-class letters caused by the internet and email.

The president does not have the power to determine postal rates. They are set by the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency with commissioners from both political parties who are selected by the president. That panel raised prices on packages by almost 2 percent in November.

Amazon is run by founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, a newspaper Trump has repeatedly railed against. It has shown interest in delivering its own packages and has tested drones for doing so.

In 2015, Amazon spent $11.5 billion on shipping, 46 percent of its total operating expenses that year. It has not commented publicly on Trump’s criticisms.

(Reporting by Chris Sanders and Diane Bartz; Editing by Bill Rigby)