A Silicon Valley startup founded by former Google employees is looking to radically change long-haul trucking. Otto is developing a self-driving truck upgrade kit for commercial rigs. As with the race to develop self-driving cars, Otto is not alone in these ambitions, but self-driving trucks could lead to unintended consequences for local economies, particularly in small towns that rely on the trucking industry.
Otto debuted with its plan in a Medium post published Tuesday. The startup highlights the need for self-driving trucks by citing the deteriorating quality of life for drivers, road congestion, pollution and safety. There are 222,000 miles of highways, 4.3 million commercial trucks and 14 billion tons of cargo daily crisscrossing America. It's an industry ripe for innovation. A self-driving truck can make for a more efficient long-haul industry. Truck drivers — no longer needing a second driver or to stay awake for long stretches of time — will be able to perform their job safely while meeting the needs of the booming truck industry.
"At the heart of our vision is the belief that self-driving tech is the key for creating a more sustainable, productive — and above all, safer — transportation future," Otto wrote on Medium. Co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, formerly of Google's self-driving car team, and Lior Ron, previously the lead engineer for Google Maps, Otto's team includes engineers and former employees of Google, Apple and Tesla.
Instead of a new truck, Otto uses a kit equipped with a Light Detection and Ranging system that uses lasers to measure distances, cameras and radar, according to the New York Times. It's a setup similar to that of other self-driving cars, but Otto packages its technology as a kit that can be easily adopted by drivers who own their own commercial trucks.
Daimler Trucks North America tested an autonomous semi while the Volvo-backed Project Sartre is developing a self-driving convoy. Closer to home, Peleton Technology — which closed a $17 million investment round last year that included a partnership with Lockheed Martin — is developing its own self-driving truck system.
Self-driving trucks could also greatly impact the economies of small towns that may rely on truck traffic. Researcher Scott Santens provides a roadmap that begins with a boom as the need for more truck drivers means higher wages, but ends with fewer drives as autonomous fleets of trucks become more prominent. Levandowski likened it to the end of elevator operators to close the New York Times article.
Otto's fleet of three commercial rigs are currently on the road, which included a demo on a public highway. The price for a kit is estimated to be around $30,000, according to Wired.