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Driverless trucks

Coming to a highway near you?

Picture an 18-wheel truck barreling down the highway with 80,000 pounds of cargo and no one but a robot at the wheel.

To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google’s driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona.

But Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google’s self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system.

Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup the he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay.

Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of U.S. highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks.

For now, the robot truckers would only take control on the highways, leaving humans to handle the tougher task of wending through city streets. The idea is similar to the automated pilots that fly jets at high altitudes while leaving the takeoffs and landings to humans.

“Our goal is to make trucks drive as humanly as possible, but with the reliability of machines,” Levandowski says.

[…]

Otto hasn’t set a timetable for completing its tests, but hopes to eventually retrofit all the U.S. trucks on the road. That would encompass more than 4.7 million trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

The startup touts its technology as way to make up for a worsening shortage of truck drivers as more of them retire without enough younger drivers to replace them. Last year, the shortage stood at 47,500 and, unless recent trends change, will rise to nearly 175,000 by 2024, according to the American Trucking Associations.

The trade group hasn’t taken a stand on self-driving technology, but may draw up a policy later this year, said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy.

“We are paying close attention because this could be huge for trucking in terms of labor costs and safety,” Osiecki says.

Levandowski insists self-driving trucks aren’t as scary as they might sound. Robot truckers are less likely to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions than a human, and will never get tired. Between 10 and 20 percent of the roughly 4,000 fatal accidents in the U.S. each year involving trucks and buses are linked to driver fatigue, based on estimates gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“It’s really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Levandowski says.

Here’s Otto’s website if you want to learn more. There’s a lot of logic to this idea – a lot of highway driving is open road, with little skill needed to keep things rolling. Having a human driver on board who can rest during the long, boring parts and be ready for the more challenging segments of the drive makes sense, and with the human driver still in the picture it won’t threaten the parts of the rural economy that depends on truck traffic. It’ll be interesting to see how this goes, especially if Otto markets itself at the drivers.

One curious bit from this NYT writeup.

California motor vehicle regulations prohibit Otto’s vision of a truck traveling on the freeway with only a sleeping driver in the cab, for example. But many states would permit that technical advance.

“Right now, if you want to drive across Texas with nobody at the wheel, you’re 100 percent legal,” said Mr. Levandowski, who as a Google engineer, helped write draft legislation that permitted self-driving vehicles, which later became law in Nevada.

Not sure where they get that idea, because bills relating to driverless cars have not made it out of the Legislature. It may be that this relates to state and federal roads – i.e., the highways – and not local roads, for which legislation is needed to allow access. I’d have to do more research on that. In any event, this is something to keep an eye on, even if the name Otto has some possibly unwanted connotations, at least for people of my generation. Tech Crunch has more.

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