US Postal Service Testing Self-Driving Trucks

The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. Postal Service is testing self-driving trucks on a more than 1,000-mile mail run between Phoenix and Dallas, the post office’s first use of the technology for long hauls. […]

The two-week pilot starting Tuesday will use big rigs supplied by autonomous trucking firm TuSimple to haul trailers on five round trips between distribution centers, the company said. The roughly 22-hour trip along three interstate highways is normally serviced by outside trucking companies that use two-driver teams to comply with federal regulations limiting drivers’ hours behind the wheel.

TuSimple is a Chinese-unicorn, and as far as I know — is beating Lyft and Uber (and Tesla?) to the finish line of freight-transport automation. This is a pretty huge defeat for the homegrown rideshare companies. Convincing a bureaucratically-restrained department like the Postal Service to even test automated freight is wild. If you had told me a decade ago that the USPS would be testing a Chinese-backed unicorn’s software for automating freighted post — I would have laughed. It’s simply unbelievable.

A freight-truck driving at dusk, with sensors on it.
TuSimple

But here we are! Living in the future!

At any rate, the WSJ claims that the USPS has been “losing money for several years” as sending letters via post continues to decline and the rising cost of operation goes up. First off, The Postal Service is profitable, but congress decided to neuter the USPS profits (at least until 2056) in 2006. The bill is insane. It’s pretty wild looking back at bi-partisan sponsors of the bill through the political lens of today too. From Bloomberg:

Then there is the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006(PAEA), which some have taken to calling “the most insane law” ever passed by Congress. The law requires the Postal Service, which receives no taxpayer subsidies, to prefund its retirees’ health benefits up to the year 2056. This is a $5 billion per year cost; it is a requirement that no other entity, private or public, has to make. If that doesn’t meet the definition of insanity, I don’t know what does. Without this obligation, the Post Office actually turns a profit. Some have called this a “manufactured crisis.” It’s also significant that lots of companies benefit from a burden that makes the USPS less competitive; these same companies might also would benefit from full USPS privatization, a goal that has been pushed by several conservative think tanks for years.

Lastly, operating costs always change. That’s a given in just about any industry. So needless to say, I’m happy to see the USPS is taking a gamble on exciting tech like this. Just because Amazon is taking gambles on automation, doesn’t mean the government can’t get skin in the game too.

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