On one hand, Starsky Robotics is a traditional over-the-road trucking company that relies on its 36 trucks for freight delivery and revenue. But the startup founded in 2016 by Stefan Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari was launched to solve a problem plaguing the freight industry: the driver shortage.
“Our goal is to solve the driver shortage by making trucks autonomous on the highway and remote controlled for the last mile,” said Chief Executive Officer Seltz-Axmacher, “allowing human drivers to work in office environments and go home between shifts.”
Since Starsky’s launch, it has acquired three autonomous trucks and hopes to increase that number to 25 in 2020. Starsky, which has raised $21.7 million in venture capital funding, ranked 12th in the FreightTech 25, announced at FreightWaves LIVE Chicago in November. This industry-wide award given to innovative and disruptive companies was judged by a prestigious external panel, with voting overseen by accounting firm Katz, Sapper & Miller.
Plenty of other companies — Daimler, TuSimple and Embark to name a few — are pursuing Level 4 technology, the late stage of automation that ultimately removes the driver from the seat.
“We are not only focused on building a new piece of technology, we’re focused on solving a driver shortage and on how we can actually make it happen,” said Seltz-Axmacher in an interview with FreightWaves. “By employing remote drivers, we can make trucks fully driverless while still keeping humans in the loop.”
Starsky has walked its talk in 2019. In June, it became the first self-driving company to test an entirely unmanned autonomous truck traveling 55 mph for 9.4 miles of public highway. Sitting 200 miles away in Jacksonville, Florida, a remote operator navigated the first- and last-mile segments of the trip — only two-tenths of a mile.
In August, Starsky Robotics teamed up with Loadsmart to fully automate the entire process of moving freight — from pricing to booking to delivering — using Loadsmart’s automated dispatch application programming interface (API) and Starsky’s Hutch API.
“Autonomous vehicles play an integral role in our vision of delivering end-to-end automated logistics services,” said Ricardo Salgado, chief executive officer at Loadsmart. “We are thrilled to partner with Starsky as we work to give our shared Fortune 500 customers access to cutting-edge technology that will enable their supply chains to move more with less.”
Starsky is not just in the business of building autonomous trucks, Seltz-Axmacher said. It wants to build autonomous trucking, which means automating workflows for brokers and carriers.
“Most trucking companies typically have five people involved in dispatching each load to each truck every day,” said Seltz-Axmacher. “If Uber were run like that, they would need about 2.5 million dispatchers as opposed to their 22,000 employees in total. As a tech company, this sort of inefficiency is offensive.”
Two primary criticisms commonly leveled against self-driving trucks, including from Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, are their lack of safety, as well as their threat to jobs. Currently in the United States, there are 1.7 million truck driving jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Humans are better at navigating many of the nuances of driving than even the most advanced computer systems,” said Seltz-Axmacher. “This is why we use remote drivers to help our trucks at their most contextually complex junctures. We are not eliminating drivers’ jobs. Instead, we are moving them from a truck to a safe and comfortable office where they utilize their years of long-haul trucking experience but remain close to their families and go home between shifts.”