‘Trucking is a hard job’

June 20, 2019

Wendy Parker

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Yes. It’s another piece about autonomous trucks. But if you’ll bear with me for about three minutes, I’ll tell you a story about some folks who are doing it right. And if you’ll hush up with the yelling about “taking your job away” and read on, you’ll understand why.

Three years ago, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari formed San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics and set out to perfect their own version of an autonomous trucking program. They realized early on that it would be pretty easy to build a program to drive trucks under controlled conditions. The hard part of commercial driving is the nuance and experience involved that is required to navigate a tractor-trailer in real-world conditions.

Conditions real drivers face every day. Things a computer can’t do. Not yet, anyway.

“We’re not developing something to take over all the driving jobs in the industry,” Seltz-Axmacher told Land Line. “Obviously our platform isn’t going to work on every route. That’s not our intention. We know we’ll need skilled human drivers to integrate into the process for a long time.”

Did someone mention skilled human drivers? Why yes, as a matter of fact they did.

For the past two years Starsky has been operating a regular ol’ not-robot trucking company. Thirty-six trucks with 100% human drivers generate revenue running dry van freight.

“Our trucking company has delivered in 45 states,” Stefan said. “We currently employ 41 drivers, who are paid per-mile.”

Although he declined to quote a per-mile rate, he says that it’s comparable to higher-end mileage pay.

Seltz-Axmacher was very forthcoming about discovering just how hard it really is to run a trucking company.

“We learned some expensive lessons pretty quick,” he said. “There was a short time in the beginning when we were just making things up and really had no insight into the actual business of trucking. We got to a point where it was costing us more than five bucks a mile to run loads.”

Obviously, that didn’t last very long. Stefan and Kartik knew they needed insight and guidance from people who knew the intricacies of trucking as a business. They hired trucking-industry veterans to help navigate the pitfalls many people aren’t aware of when starting any type of trucking company, large or small.

“We’ve been able to grow our trucking company and want to continue to offer a working environment that shows how much we respect the profession,” Stefan said.

Now back to the autonomous part.

Hiring a pool of experienced drivers who have physically demonstrated their skills is the perfect place for Starsky to recruit drivers who are interested in taking the next step in eventually becoming teleop drivers, or drivers who perform intricate driving tasks via computer in an office and go home after their shift.

Seltz-Axmacher is aware this isn’t something a lot of drivers are interested in pursuing at the moment, but he also knows it’s an incentive to hiring those who are. And he’s smart enough to know that to operate a profitable trucking company, autonomous or not, you still need experienced drivers.

The company plans to more than double their standard truck fleet in the next year and would like to have 100 trucks in operation. The goal of 25 autonomous trucks is hoped to be reached by 2020 as well.

If you just want to keep on trucking and not involve autonomous technology in your love of driving, that’s fine too. There’s still a place on the road for every type of experienced driver, and, according to Seltz-Axmacher’s predictions, there will be for a long time.

Wendy Parker

Wendy Parker has covered the trucking industry since 2012 after she says she “lost my mind and decided to climb inside my husband’s big truck to travel with him as an over-the road, long-haul trucker.” Her unique writing style that ranges from biting satire to investigative journalism coupled with her unbridled passion for fighting round out a wildly talented stable of writers.

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