Blake Dowling: Tech and trucking — a perfect match?

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Will we see driverless trucks one day? Of that, I am certain.

The other night, I tuned in to 60 Minutes for what they called a “new episode.”

The Russian hacking story was old news; there was a piece on automated trucking, which featured a company (called Starsky) that was an “innovator” in the driverless trucking space.

The following morning, I reached out to Starsky to see where they are with this technology only to find out they ceased operations in early 2020. In the 60 Minutes episode, there was big deal about Starsky rolling along the Florida Turnpike.

Florida Trucking Day at the Capital, 2020. Image via Florida Trucking Association.

Did they not take the time to see if the company was still in business before rebroadcasting a segment about how this tech is “taking over?”

Side note: There was one gem in this edition of 60 Minutes — a wonderful piece with Adam Sandler. I had no idea that, back in the day, he was fired from Saturday Night Live.

Oh man, and Sandler’s first return to the show (some 30 years later), he not only paid tribute to his lost friend, Chris Farley, but he sings a song to NBC about his films grossing $4 billion since his termination.

Classic. Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Farley’s run on the show was almost as good as the originals, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, etc.

Back to driverless trucking. What is going on in this space, and what happened to a company that was featured on the national news this week as a leader in its field, but is actually no longer in business less than a year later?

Here’s the clip of the company tackling 10 miles of Florida highway last year. It’s pretty cool, so why was Hutch not involved? (sigh, pun alert)

How does a company go from featured with our Governor to going out of business?

Let’s take a look. Long story short, it would appear they just ran out of money? From 2015-2018 the company raised over 20 million dollars, but by the end of 2019 the layoffs started and by 2020, that was the end. But isn’t everyone in the Transportation space investing R & D money into this area?

A little background on Florida’s trucking industry. Trucking accounts for 1 in every 21 jobs statewide — a staggering number — equaling 365,240 jobs.

Also, as far as tax revenue, the state’s trucking industry paid $1.6 billion in federal and state roadway taxes.

*Thank you, Alix Miller, VP, Florida Trucking Association for this data.

Back to Starsky; it is important to understand this company was not using AI to run the rigs in the Turnpike test.

They were utilizing remote drivers similarly to how the U.S. military uses drones.

In the Turnpike test, the driver of the truck was in Jacksonville. I reached out to the Florida Trucking Association President and CEO Ken Armstrong for some clarity on what is really going on in this space (right now it’s hard to get a clear picture of where this is headed).

Florida Truck Driving Championships. Image via the FTA.

“When you have both entrepreneurs and legacy manufacturers working on a single technology, I don’t see how it’s not going to happen,” Armstrong said. “A handful of disrupters are making noise, if not yet equipment. And every major truck manufacturer has a unit developing its own entry into the sweepstakes. With billions being invested, I can’t imagine we aren’t going to make rapid progress toward driverless trucks.”

He added: “So the question is obviously how soon AI will get us to the promised land. My belief, shared by some and disputed by probably the majority, is that we are going to be in big-time autonomous mode within a decade. Drivers will still be in trucks, but with the truck doing the driving. Full-scale driverless will be another decade away … but coming fast. Now, I should add that trucking is very diverse, and some operations will be much more compatible with early tech than others.”

This is not the usual happy story of technology saving the day, nor a sad tale of technology disrupting an industry and taking jobs away from hardworking Americans.

One of the leaders in driverless tech is Einride in Sweden, check them out as their vehicles don’t even have a cab, picture courtesy of Brian from their team.

Personally, I am glad the truckers can keep trucking, maybe it’s because my family had a trucking company in Texas when I was a kid? (My CB handle was Black Cat, over.)

Or maybe it’s because I still get chills when I hear “East Bound and Down?” Burt Reynolds was the coolest.

Nostalgia and childhood memories aside the story of Starsky is a reminder that innovation takes time and a reminder that sometimes even tech startups run out of money (not Uber it would seem).

Will we see driverless trucks one day?

Of that, I am certain; as Armstrong said, with billions invested, it may not be happening today, but it is certainly happening, and soon.

Another important point to consider about this potential shift is 94% of the accidents are caused by humans, one of the main reasons automated solutions are being sought (thanks again, Ken).

Perhaps it becomes a scenario where truckers, the trucking industry and technology fall perfectly in line perfectly with an ideal collaboration, leading to more efficient transportation for Florida and the nation?

Be safe out there and keep on trucking in that Eastbound lane Bandit & Snowman and everyone else in this essential and especially important Florida industry.

___

Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies; host of the Biz & Tech podcast and a writer for several organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].

Blake Dowling

Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies. His technology columns are published by several organizations. Contact him at [email protected] or at www.aegisbiztech.com



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