You’ve probably never heard of Starsky Robotics, the San Francisco startup that wants to put driverless semi-trailer trucks on the road later this year.
The company faces significant competition from transportation juggernauts such as Waymo, Uber, and Tesla, who are also working on big-rigs that drive themselves.
But Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, the 28-year-old cofounder and CEO of Starsky Robotics, says he isn’t worried, simply because he doesn’t think trucking is a priority for his rivals.
“I don’t think Tesla’s in the race. Honestly, I think Waymo, Tesla, and Uber all have their leftover people working on trucks, or maybe their up-and-comers who are trying to make a name for themselves on a less important team,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
Founded in 2015, Starsky Robotics — named for the trucking slang term for when drivers work in teams, like the title characters of the 1970s TV series “Starsky & Hutch” — aims to have driverless semi-trailer trucks on the road before the end of 2018, Seltz-Axmacher said.
It could be a first, beating all of those rivals.
The system they’re building has big-rigs drive themselves in simple highway conditions, and has human drivers take remote control from miles away when the trucks encounter anything weird or complicated. The plan is to eventually hire dozens of drivers, who will each monitor several trucks at once from the safety of a computer screen.
Before the year’s end, Seltz-Axmacher says Starsky Robotics will beat Tesla to putting self-driving semi-trucks on the road — without a human in the driver seat.
The company may already be halfway there. Starsky Robotics has been hauling freight for other companies and making money since April 2017, with a small number of self-driving, but manned vehicles operating in southeastern parts of the US.
Starsky Robotics employs seven drivers and its trucks cover about 150 miles every day, according to Seltz-Axmacher.
And while its competitors are focused on ride-hailing, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars, Seltz-Axmacher says Starsky Robotics has eyes on long-haul trucking only.
“Saying that we’re better than Tesla is like an average baseball player saying that they’re better at baseball than Michael Jordan,” Seltz-Axmacher said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be better at basketball, but I don’t really care about basketball in this case.”
The entrepreneur describes himself as the “least qualified person in this entire industry” to disrupt long-haul trucking. He became interested in trucking as a college student and intern at a manufacturing company based outside Philadelphia.
One day on the job, he learned that buying a new, diesel semi-trailer Class 8 truck will set you back around $150,000, and that most drivers buy their own vehicles. By comparison, some Lamborghinis start at $200,000.
The cost of getting into the business, combined with poor working conditions, solitude, and life-threatening job hazards, makes long-haul trucking one of the least desirable jobs in America. For these reasons and more, there’s a dire shortage of truckers nationwide, pushing up freight costs and, in turn, raising retail prices.
Seltz-Axmacher thinks self-driving semi-trucks can help.
Starsky Robotics employs regular truck drivers, who are familiar with operating these vehicles, to drive using a remote-control steering wheel and pedals from inside a Starsky Robotics office. For now, the company also puts a human in the driver seat.
The goal is not to replace the human behind the wheel, but to relocate them to a driving simulator. Seltz-Axmacher hopes those drivers will spend more time with their families and friends — and avoid the accidents and injuries that befall long-haul truckers all too often.
Starsky isn’t the only one working on building this future.
Rival Uber’s self-driving trucks have been hauling freight on Arizona highways for several months now. The ride-hailing giant said in March that it’s not ready for driverless.
Tesla revealed its hulking hauler, which has electric motors and a 500 mile range, at a splashy unveiling in November 2017. The vehicle made its first cargo trip in March, carrying battery packs from Gigafactory 1 in Nevada to Tesla’s Fremont factory in California.
The all-electric truck, called the Semi, isn’t supposed to go into production until 2019.
Meanwhile, Tesla has hit something of a rough patch. The electric car juggernaut announced plans to lay off about 9% of its employees on Monday, amid efforts to restructure the organization in order to turn a profit. Tesla has already slashed its Model 3 production targets for the year as it struggles to fill orders.
Even so, Seltz-Axmacher says he has no desire to bad-mouth Tesla’s Elon Musk.
“It’s all fun to talk about how Goliath sucks when Goliath’s doing great, and you’re the little David,” Seltz-Axmacher said. “But when Goliath is like on their knees and can’t walk and is using a cane, picking on them — that’s not the best use of my time.”