Otto Plans to Bring the First Autonomous Driving Trucks to Market

Trucks may beat cars to autonomy. 

A new autonomous trucking company wants to give drivers a rest on long hauls, but there are early concerns that the technology will displace the 3 million truck drivers in the United States.

Otto, a startup founded by a team of 15 former Google engineers, has developed autonomous rigging for trucks, which have already logged 10,000 miles on highways in Nevada. The company has plans to enter the market as soon as testing is complete.

While the notion of self-driving cars or trucks may still seem futuristic, recent successful efforts to adjust regulations in states like Texas and Nevada mean that the vehicles could legally hit the road now, if only the technology existed. Otto’s leadership believes that it can fill that need, potentially before companies like Google and Tesla make good on their promises to bring autonomous vehicles to the market. Trucks drive the vast majority of their miles on major highways, meaning many of the obstacles that have plagued passenger vehicles, which are expected to travel on all roads in all conditions, do not exist.

“Right now, if you want to drive across Texas with nobody at the wheel, you’re 100 percent legal,” Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski told The New York Times.

Trucks travel 5.6 percent of all miles driven in the United States and are involved in about 9.6 percent of fatalities on the road. Following Tesla’s lead, the statup’s backers emphasize that Otto could help keep roads safe, as human error is generally believed to be responsible for over 90 percent of all driving accidents. The possibility of dramatically reducing shipping costs by allowing drivers to sleep on the road or getting rid of drivers altogether undoubtedly underlies some of Otto’s attractiveness to investors.

“Initially there will be certain roads that we know we can drive more safely,” Levandowski said. “On those roads we’ll tell the driver, ‘You’re welcome to go take your nap or your break right now.’ If that’s 500 miles, that’s 10 hours, so he gets his full rest.”

Levandowski has pledged that Otto will “demonstrate commercial viability soon,” but exactly what that means for the trucking industry remains unclear. Responsible for about 15 percent of all jobs in the United States, trucking is a labor-intensive business that employs people in areas of the country already struggling to maintain economic balance.

“The removal of truckers from freeways will have an effect on today’s towns similar to the effects the freeways themselves had on towns decades ago that had sprung up around bypassed stretches of early highways,” wrote Scott Santens, an independent researcher, in a Medium post last year.

Otto is currently targeting those truck drivers who own their rigs and want to increase their own efficiency. Purchasing Otto’s technology would permit these drivers to nap in areas that allow autonomous driving, potentially removing the need for a second driver on long hauls. But Levandowski is not shying away from the potential of autonomous trucking either. In fact, as disrupters go, he may even come off as unusually candid.

“It will take a very long time to transition three million people,” Mr. Levandowski said of truck drivers who stand to lose their jobs to his technology. “However, it’s also the nature of progress. There used to be elevator operators in New York City and there are not anymore.”

Otto is facing some stiff competition from major manufacturers like Mercedes and Volvo, which have also been testing autonomous trucks, so it’s not clear the nature of progress will, in the end, leave Levandowski anything more than a footnote.

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