One day, don’t be surprised if you see empty driver’s seats in big rigs criss-crossing America’s highways. No, this is not the result of the Earth passing through a comet’s tail or an old episode of The Simpsons. Those eighteen-wheelers are most likely equipped with self-driving, or autonomous, capability.
One company to outfit such trucks is Otto. Founded by former Google members, the self-driving trucking start-up was acquired last year by Uber, the leader in ride-sharing services. The resulting self-driving truck made its first trek this month, where it traveled 120 miles over two hours from Fort Collins, CO to Colorado Springs, with 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer.
Otto’s autonomous $30,000 truck-driving system consists of four key parts. The first is a large forward-facing camera placed on top of the truck cabin roof. Three LiDAR detection units composed the second part. LiDAR scans the area around it like radar, but uses lasers instead of radio waves. A standard radar mounted on the bumper comprises the third part. Finally, detailed maps from the navigation system provides the fourth.
Otto’s autonomous system is simple to operate. Once the driver gets the vehicle on the road, they simply press a button. The system takes over where it maintains safe driving distances from other vehicles around it while changing lanes only when necessary. The driver can turn off the system and assume driving duties again once the destination is reached.
Lior Ron, co-founder of Otto, states: “The technology is ready to start doing these commercial pilots. 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.”
There are numerous benefits to roll out such technologies in the trucking industry. Approximately 70 percent of America’s freight is hauled around by truck. There are around 3 million drivers behind the wheel, an insufficient number to handle the demand which continues to grow as more people shop online. Hiring new drivers does not solve the problem, with most quitting after the first year. The result has been roughly 400,000 truck-involved accidents each year, with around 4,000 fatalities. Human error is nearly always to blame in these cases. Costs also range in the billions.
Otto currently has a fleet of six vehicles it’s testing in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the company refines the technology, it looks forward to such goals as navigating crowded city streets with other drivers, handling construction zones and even self-park.
Other companies developing autonomous trucks include Volvo and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz and Smart.
Images: Otto, Uber