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Starsky Robotics co-founders Stefan Seltz Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari. Courtesy of Starsky Robotics

This Driverless Truck Startup Is Putting Human Drivers to Work

Feb 28, 2017

Starsky Robotics CEO and co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher wants to solve the primary logistical challenge for the trucking industry by taking drivers off the road and putting them in an office.

Starsky Robotics is a self-driving truck startup. But its business model and approach is unlike other self-driving truck companies like Embark and Otto that have emerged in the past year.

The company, which has raised $3.75 million from Y Combinator, Sam Altman, Trucks VC, Data Collective and several other angel investors, has a dual approach: Use software, radar, and computer vision cameras to allow long haul trucks to drive autonomously on the highway, and then turn the job over to a trained "driver" using a remote control to bring the truck from the exit to its final destination.

"Unless you're getting the driver out of the truck, you're not solving anything," Seltz-Axmacher told Fortune. "It's really hard to get drivers; there's a shortage of about 75,000 drivers right now and the turnover is 100% per year."

The newest trucks on the road, like those made by Volvo and Freightliner, have advanced driver assistance technologies in place, including those that are similar to the adaptive cruise control and lane keeping features found in new passenger cars. The new technology has made driving a truck less stressful, but it still doesn't solve the fundamental problem.

And while drivers are paid on average between $60,000 to $90,000 per year, they're often on the road for weeks at a time.

"There's a real human cost," Seltz-Axmacher said.

Starksy Robotics, which has about 11 employees, thinks it can solve the staffing problem that trucking companies face and keep drivers employed in jobs that pay the same amount, but that don't require time away from home.

The company, which was co-founded by Kartik Tiwari, has developed an aftermarket retrofit kit that includes robotics controls that can physically push the pedals, turn the steering wheel, and change gear. The remote drivers, can take control of the trucks at any time. Starsky Robotics plans to hire truck drivers, who have at least five years experience and a perfect driving record, as the remote control operators.

"We're like driver arbitrage for the trucking company," Seltz-Axmacher said.

Starsky Robotics will have contracts with the trucking companies. The drivers will be employees of Starsky Robotics. Each driver will be able to monitor and occasionally control between 10 and 30 trucks at a time, according to Seltz-Axmacher.

Earlier this month, the company successfully moved a 5,000-pound load of empty milk crates about 180 miles with the truck driving autonomously about 85% of the time. A video below captures the demonstration ride.

Seltz-Axmacher said the company plans to being regular service in next couple of months—with a safety driver remaining behind the wheel. By the end of the year, Seltz-Axmacher hopes to be able to take the safety drivers out of the trucks altogether.

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The company is targeting long haul services, which is primarily highway driving with short trips from the exit to the final destination. Regulations for autonomous vehicles varies wildly from state to state. For now, the company will operate in states with the most permissive laws, namely Florida, Michigan, and Nevada.

A number of self-driving trucks have emerged in the past year to try and carve out a niche in a potentially lucrative, yet fragmented industry.

Earlier this month, Embark, formerly Varden Labs, came out of stealth mode in February.

Otto, which was founded by former Google car and map veterans Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, has received the most attention in large part because it was acquired by Uber in August 2016 for $680 milion.

Waymo, the Google self-driving project that recently spun out to become a business under Alphabet, filed a lawsuit Feb. 23 against Otto and Uber for patent infringement and stealing trade secrets.

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