Autonomous big trucks could be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system, says Anthony Levandowski, Co-founder of San Francisco self-driving truck startup Otto.
Highways are the backbone of America. Close to 4.3 million commercial trucks ply these routes, becoming just as powerful a symbol of the American transportation system as the roads themselves. And yet it is these very same trucks that cause an unacceptable number of fatalities every year.
Otto’s aim is to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so that they eventually navigate 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.
Otto’s current goal is to use robot truckers only for 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.
Robot trucks do seem as a far-fetched concept if not for Levandowski’s background:
Levandowski, a former google engineer, has been working on automated driving for more than a decade, starting in 2004 with a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider that is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also designed PriBot, a self-driving Prius that crossed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to deliver a pizza in 2008 before Google unveiled its fleet of autonomous cars.
Otto boasts of a team involving some of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology with most of them being former employees from Google, Apple and Tesla Motors. This has helped the four month-old startup to go full swing in outfitting three big-rig cabs with its automated technology. The company recently completed its first extended test of its system on public highways in Nevada during the past weekend.
Otto went to Nevada because California’s self-driving regulations apply only to passenger cars, forbidding the technology from being used on public roads by commercial trucks or any vehicle exceeding 10,000 pounds.
Self-driving trucks aren’t as scary as they might sound, insists Levandowski; robot truckers are less likely to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions than a human and will never get tired.
Image credits: AP Photo/Eric Risberg. Excerpts from Chicago Sun Times, Video by Otto