On the road to self-driving trucks, Starsky Robotics built a traditional trucking business

More than three years ago, self-driving trucks startup Starsky Robotics was founded to solve a fundamental issue with freight — a solution that CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher believes hinges on getting the human driver out from behind the wheel.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Starsky Robotics started a regular ol’ trucking company. Now, nearly half of the employees at this self-driving truck startup help run a business that uses the traditional model of employing human drivers to haul loads for customers, TechCrunch has learned.

Starsky’s trucking business, which has been operating in secret for nearly two years alongside the company’s more public pursuit of developing autonomous vehicle technology, has hauled 2,200 loads for customers. The company has 36 regular trucks that only use human drivers to haul freight. It has three autonomous trucks that are driven and supported by a handful of test drivers. Starsky also employs a number of office people who, as Seltz-Axmacher notes, “know how to run trucks.”

The CEO and co-founder contends that without the human-driven trucking piece, Starsky won’t ever have an operational, or profitable, self-driving truck business. The trucking business has generated revenue, led to key partnerships such as Schneider Logistics, Penske and Transport Enterprise Leasing, and importantly, helped build a company that works in the real world. It has also been a critical tool for recruiting and vetting safety drivers and teleoperators (or remote drivers), according to Seltz-Axmacher.

“The decision to have a trucking business interact with the real trucking world in parallel with developing the robotics piece is a necessary part of building a longstanding business in the space,” said Reilly Brennan, general partner at Trucks VC and the first institutional investor in Starsky.

Starksy, which was co-founded by Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari, has raised $21.7 million in equity from investors including Shasta Ventures and Trucks VC.

The evolution over at Starsky illustrates the challenge that awaits the autonomous vehicle industry and the giant companies and startups operating within it. Even after engineers solve the complexity of building an AI-powered driver that’s better than a human, these companies must figure out the equally intricate task of operations. Robotaxis, autonomous delivery robots and self-driving trucks won’t matter if humans don’t use, like or trust the tech.

Figuring out the basics of operations — including the rather pedestrian and obvious ones — will mean the difference between making or losing money. Or, having a business at all.

And the stakes are high. Trucks are the backbone of the U.S. economy and moved more than 70% of all U.S. freight and generated more than $700 billion in 2017, according to the most up-to-date statistics available from the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Companies pursuing robotaxis and other autonomous vehicle programs are going to eventually wake up — if they haven’t already — to the same realities that Starsky has accepted, Brennan contends.

“The interaction with the market, particularly in logistics, is vital,” Brennan said, adding that companies pursuing robotaxis that haven’t built out and tested a consumer-facing app risk the same problems. “They need to have a business on day one, not on day 720.”

For Starsky, it started with something as basic as having a working vehicle and access to mechanics that could fix it.

Trucks, the hard way

Seltz-Axmacher admits now he underestimated how difficult trucks could be.

“Hey, it’s a truck, how hard can buying one be?,” said Seltz-Axmacher, as he described the company’s first major purchase of a truck for about $50,000. “We quickly realized that having a truck and driving a truck are not easy things to do.”

Starsky engineers retrofitted the truck, named Rosebud, with its autonomous driving system and made plans to test it at the Thunderhill Raceway about 150 miles north of San Francisco. It didn’t make it. The truck’s engine was smoking by the time it crossed the Bay Bridge. And then the truck, along with all those engineers, sat for two weeks while Seltz-Axmacher hunted for a diesel mechanic.

Self-driving truck startup Starsky Robotics began with this first, and problematic truck

The truck, pictured above, continued to break down. The company ran into more snafus, including a problem with insurance and the title of the vehicle. Starsky was going to miss a key milestone and Seltz-Axmacher was going to have to tell investors that it wasn’t because of bottlenecks in engineering, but because they didn’t know how to manage the truck part of this self-driving truck company.

The founders learned that even “average” trucks needed to go to the shop every 60 days, which is operationally complex when vehicles are traveling throughout the United States.

Starsky ended up making a key hire, Paul Schlegel, who is a veteran of trucking operations, to organize the enterprise. Schlegel, who has 32 years in the transportation industry with companies such as Schneider National and Stevens Transport, developed the trucking business that enabled autonomous trucks, but still worked in their absence. The trucking operations team is in Dallas. 

The driver pinchpoint

Seltz-Axmacher has said repeatedly that “unless you’re getting the driver out of the truck, you’re not solving anything.”

The problem in trucking is the supply of drivers. The chronic shortage has, in turn, driven up costs. For instance, the median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route was more than $53,000 — a $7,000 increase from ATA’s last survey, which covered annual pay for 2013, or an increase of 15%. It’s even higher for private fleet drivers, who saw their pay rise to more than $86,000 from $73,000, or a gain of nearly 18%.

Starksy soon found that finding the right drivers was just as hard as finding the right trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shows the company has reported three crashes of its manually driven trucks.

Seltz-Axmacher said they’ve had a driver make a wrong turn and have a low-hanging branch rip a hole in the side of a trailer. The most serious incident involved a new driver who took an offramp in Florida too fast and rolled the truck onto its side. No one was injured and the driver was terminated.

These drivers are critical to the autonomous program and the best of them end up becoming teleop controllers, a job that involves sitting in an office, not logging days and weeks in a truck.

Starsky is taking a dual approach to its autonomous trucks. It outfits regular trucks with a combination of sensors like radar and cameras along with software that allows long-haul trucks to drive autonomously on the highway. When the truck is about to exit, a trained remote operator, who is sitting in an office, takes over and navigates the truck to its final destination.

The promise of being able to be promoted to teleoperator is a big part of how Starsky is able to hire drivers effectively. The company contends it wouldn’t be possible to find 25 highly skilled safety and remote drivers without having a broader fleet of regular truck drivers to choose from.

Robotrucks or bust

The ultimate goal of Starsky Robotics hasn’t changed, Seltz-Axmacher said. To get there, the company recently hired Ain McKendrick as vice president of engineering, and former Tesla executive Keith Flynn to head up its hardware manufacturing to support Starsky’s fleet build. McKendrick, who co-founded Podtek and Lyve, also has experience at autonomous vehicle company Cyngn, Highfive, Netflix and Dell .

By early 2020, the company aims to have 25 autonomous trucks — a goal that is only possible if it has 100 regular trucks, he added.

The only way Starsky can scale its operations on the autonomous side is to continue to scale its regular trucking operations six months in advance. In other words, the regular trucking business is inextricably linked to the success of deploying autonomous trucks.

The company has already found that the 15-plus brokers that are regularly giving it freight to haul are ready for driverless trucks.

“Many times the brokers who have given us loads have been fairly ambivalent to whether or not we’re hauling that freight with a self-driving truck, Seltz-Axmacher said. “A lot of the concern that people might have is that this is a technology-averse industry and might not be willing to accept self-driving trucks has proven not to be true.”

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Dell Inspiron 3000 laptop is on sale for almost $200 off

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Get yourself a good laptop that won't break the bank.
Get yourself a good laptop that won’t break the bank.
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TL;DR: This cheap, yet powerful Dell Inspiron 3000 17-inch laptop is on sale for less than $560.

Finding a cheap laptop that actually works is great, but finding an already-cheap laptop that works and is on sale, now that’s a straight-up win.

The Dell Inspiron 3000 17-inch laptop is powered by an 8th Generation Intel Core processor and operates under Windows 10 Home. This mighty laptop is currently on sale for $92.40 off, but you can receive an extra 15% off with code SAVE15, bringing your savings to $190.89. That means you can score the Inspiron 3000 for less than $600.

This computer has a 17.3-inch Full HD anti-glare IPS display. The huge screen delivers dramatic graphics and is great for streaming video. You’re able to easily switch back and forth between open applications with up to 8GB of memory and store your movies, photos, music, and documents with up to 2TB of storage.

A disk drive comes standard on this laptop, allowing you to play DVDs or burn CDs if you’re feeling nostalgic — not many laptops have that option anymore. The Inspiron also has an HDMI port, SD card slot, and USB ports. 

Grab the Dell Inspiron 3000 17-inch laptop on sale and enter code SAVE15 at checkout to get the computer for $558.10. (And check out the other computer products on sale with the same SAVE15 code at Dell.)

Dell Inspiron 3000 laptop is on sale for almost $200 off

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Get a 4K monitor from Dell for less than $570 with this deal

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Working during happy hour sucks. A 4K monitor makes it suck less.
Working during happy hour sucks. A 4K monitor makes it suck less.
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The last few hours of the work day always drag, but something about summer (and hearing music from the happy hour down the street) makes it that much worse.

Making cocktails in the office may not be an option, but you can make your work a little more enjoyable: The 27-inch Dell UltraSharp monitor brings gorgeous 4K clarity to even the most boring projects, and it’s on sale for $596.99.

SEE ALSO: 4K TVs on sale this week: Shop Samsung, Vizio, LG, and more

Claiming to be the world’s first 27-inch 4K monitor, this Dell UltraSharp supports HDR content (like a nice TV would) and has a nearly bezel-less design to make that content as big and immersive as possible. 

Though they’d be ace for 4K gaming or movie watching, Dell’s UltraSharp models are actually made for business and multitasking. Your spreadsheet or Powerpoint may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but it’ll sure look nice presented with 1.07 billion colors and a 3840 x 2160 resolution.

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To harness even more productivity, the TUV-certified monitor rotates effortlessly for max eye comfort and layout customization. If you have to stare at a screen for eight hours, this is the way to do it.

Regularly $739.99, you can save $170 and snag it for $569.99.

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Dell Inspiron 3000 2-in-1 laptops on sale for $99 off

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This laptop is light and compact for on-the-go use.
This laptop is light and compact for on-the-go use.
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MacBooks make for some pretty awesome laptops, but there are some drawbacks to Apple computers. For starters, they’re pricey — the cheapest MacBook on Apple’s official site will run you $849, and most cost more than $1,000. Aside from price, MacBooks don’t have a ton of bonus features, like touchscreen or 2-in-1 capabilities.

If you’re in the market for a cheaper laptop that can also double as a tablet, check out the Dell Inspiron 3000 2-in-1 laptop, currently on sale for $279.99. That’s a savings of $99.

This 11-inch laptop is equipped with CinemaSound and CinemaStream, which give you studio-quality sound and a seamless, stutter-free streaming experience. Its 360-degree hinge supports four different modes, so you can adjust the computer to your needs and get the perfect angle for browsing, watching, and gaming.

The 360-degree hinge gives you freedom to use the laptop at an angle that suits you.

The 360-degree hinge gives you freedom to use the laptop at an angle that suits you.

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The Inspiron is slim and compact (making it easy to transport) and it operates under Windows 10 Home with a seventh generation processor.

Grab the Dell Inspiron 3000 2-in-1 laptop on sale for $279.99.

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Intel's Project Athena laptops can sense when you're near

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We’ve heard Intel talk up its Project Athena program to provide long-lasting, high-spec laptops for months now, and the company finally shared the specifications a few weeks ago. Here at Computex, we’re getting our first look at the initial slate of devices that are part of Athena, which include the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, HP Envy x360, an Acer Swift laptop and the Lenovo S940.

All these laptops are attractive, thin and light devices that meet Athena requirements. That means they should deliver at least nine hours of battery life at a minimum level of brightness (250 nits), get up to four hours of power in 30 minutes of charging, and cost just slightly more than $800. They’ll also offer features like Instant Resume, which requires the PC to wake up from sleep in less than a second, as well as WiFi 6 connectivity.

To provide those quick wake times and minimize battery drain, Intel is implementing something it calls user awareness in Athena devices. Through a proximity sensor built into the lid next to the webcam, the system can detect if someone is sitting in front of it. Engadget video producer Brian Oh and I checked out a demo at Intel’s technology open house here in Taiwan, and we set the minimum distance and required time away to 50mm and three seconds.

Intel Project Athena

We backed away from the demo laptop and waited the requisite amount of time. The screen started to dim after a few seconds, and a few more seconds after that, the computer shut off and went to sleep. When we got back closer in front of the display, the laptop turned on and the Intel rep on standby quickly unlocked the device with his face via Windows Hello. All told, the sign-in process took just a few seconds from sleep.

Intel’s reps also told us that they were working on another method to detect if a user is present. It does that through the onboard camera which scans for faces in front of the computer, and then does basically the same thing it did with the proximity sensor. We checked out a beta version of this, and had to be more careful about what was in the scene. In fact, we had to be so careful not to get any faces in the frame that the Intel rep basically pointed the camera at the ceiling.

A few seconds after it recognized that there were no people in the scene, the system started to dim the screen until it got to the lowest brightness level. When a face came back into view, the display lit up again. During our demo, the laptop was so good at recognizing faces that it had reactivated even from seeing just the side profile of the Intel rep’s head.

Intel Project Athena presence-based lock wake

This method is still in testing because Intel needs to iron out some quirks, like how to behave when there are multiple faces in view. Plus, if the system is so good at recognizing faces, it might turn on the device even when passersby walk by.

Project Athena sounds similar to many other programs in the past, like Microsoft’s Always Connected PCs, NVIDIA’s Max Q or even Intel’s own Ultrabook classification from before. While I’m slightly weary of all these new, confusing PC branding plays, I am heartened by the industry’s collective efforts to make laptops better. The first wave of Athena laptops will be available by the holiday season this year, so we’ll see then if this branding will mean anything to PC shoppers.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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