It was the 20th of October 2016, when an 18-wheeler tractor trailer pulled into Colorado Springs, and in it was Sparkly liquid gold (Beer!!) and a Sh#t load of it bearing 50 freakin thousand frost cans of Budweisers. What’s abnormal about that you think? Normally, this wouldn’t matter but what would your reaction be when you came to know that the truck was driving itself?
Nope, I’m not drunk and I certainly am in my right senses (at least I think I am). This is the first time ever that commercial cargo was shipped with no one taking charge of the wheel. It all started 120 miles away at an Anheuser-Busch facility in Loveland, Colorado where a Volvo big rig that was equipped with cameras and sensors was one of the 5 owned by Otto. Otto is a San Francisco based self-driving truck company that was acquired by Uber in August. The truck was piloted to a weigh station in Fort Collins and from there on the vehicle drove itself for 100 miles without any human intervention to Colorado Springs and the driver monitoring the 2-hour trip from the sleeper berth.
The truck was outfitted with $ 30,000 worth of hardware and software from San Francisco. You’d think so momentous an occasion would have involved something more glamorous than 50,000 cans of Budweiser, but there it is. The drive was as mundane as the beer in the trailer. At 12:30 am, after leaving the brewery in Fort Collins and merging onto Interstate 25, an Otto driver punched a switch labeled “engage,” and, once sure autonomous mode had, in fact, engaged, climbed out of his seat. He buckled the safety belt behind him; to keep the warning chime from driving him crazy as the truck trundled 120 miles south to Colorado Springs. Uber bought Otto for roughly $680 million and this deal is totally worth it.
The tricky part though is that the technology works only on the highway where it doesn’t have to tackle the tricky variables like jaywalking pedestrians, four-way stops, or kids on bicycles. It maintains a safe following distance, and changes lanes only when absolutely necessary.
“The technology is ready to start doing these commercial pilots,” says Otto co-founder Lior Ron. “Over the next couple of years, we’ll continue to develop the tech, so it’s actually ready to encounter every condition on the road.”
If he can nail that, Ron says he can make trucking a local profession. “You can imagine a future where those trucks are essentially a virtual train on a software rail, on the highway,” he says.
Otto’s hardware works on any truck with an automatic transmission, and the retrofit doesn’t look like much. Three LIDAR laser detection units dot the cab and trailer, radar bolts to the bumper and a high-precision camera sits above the windshield. Inside this are a few hints of a human-free future that include 2 red, dollar-sized buttons that shut off the autonomous system with one near the steering wheel, the other in the sleeper cab behind the seats and the on/off switch, labeled “Engage.” A bank of computers turns all that data into driving directions, and an Uber engineer keeps tabs on it all. Although autonomous cars are pretty awesome, trucks are more practical and sensible.
The trucking industry hauls 70 percent of United State’s freight of about 11 billion tons annually. But the drivers aren’t enough and the American Trucking Association pegs the shortfall at 48,000 drivers, and says it could hit 175,000 by 2024.
That said, there are roughly around 400,0000 truck crashes every year according to federal statistics and this kills around 4000 people. Who is to be blamed? Humans of course. “We think that self-driving technologies can improve safety, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies of our shipments,” says James Sembrot, who handles logistics for Anheuser-Busch and worked with Otto on the October test run.
Otto is moving on a rapid phase. The company launched in January and quickly brought out its first truck. By May, it had a working prototype with a fleet of 6 trucks roaming interstates in the San Francisco bay Area with engineers pushing software tweaks weekly and major updates every month or so. Currently, the company is working on smoothing out the acceleration and braking as well as improving the lane control systems. Longer-term goals include predicting how other drivers are likely to behave, navigating construction zones, and dealing with hazards like sudden bad weather.
We are in the future and it’s time to innovate, create and make the world a better and more efficient place to live.