It sounds suspiciously like a script for a new Smokey And The Bandit movie. Here’s the scene. A tractor trailer loaded with beer is cruising down a Colorado highway so beer drinkers will find plenty of brewery fresh Budweiser on the shelves at their favorite liquor store on the way home from work. Time to reprise that famous theme song: “There’s beer in Fort Collins and they’re thirsty in Colorado Springs….” Wait a minute. That doesn’t rhyme! What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that a tractor trailer has been converted by San Francisco based start-up Otto into a machine capable of Level 4 autonomous operation. Otto, you may recall, is to trucks what Uber is to cars. In fact, Uber purchased Otto earlier this year for an estimated $680 million. The hardware for the system consists of three Lidar laser detection units mounted in the cab and on the trailer, a radar that bolts to the front bumper, and a high precision camera mounted above the windshield. Data from all five sensors is fed into an array of computers that control the speed, steering, transmission, and brakes. The system costs about $30,000 and can be retrofitted to any tractor equipped with an automatic transmission.
Once on the highway, the Otto system offers true Level 4 autonomy. It can’t navigate through urban congestion, handle red lights and stop signs, or avoid pedestrians and bicyclists, but out on the superslab, it can do everything a human driver can do. Inside the cab, the only clues that there is something different about the tractor are two red buttons — one near the steering wheel and one in the sleeper cab — that shut off the autonomous system. The other anomaly is an on/off switch that has been added to the dashboard labelled “Engage.”
“The technology is ready to start doing these commercial pilots,” says Otto co-founder Lior Ron. “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. You can imagine a future where those trucks are essentially a virtual train on a software rail, on the highway,” he says. Ron envisions a day when trucks do their thing on the interstate, then stop at designated depots where humans drive the last few miles into town. Drivers, in effect, will fulfill the role of harbor pilots, bringing the ship to port.
Elon Musk steals all the headlines about autonomous driving systems, but the work Otto is doing may have a more immediate impact on the economy. Trucks move 70% of the nation’s freight — about 10.5 billion tons annually — but the industry doesn’t have enough drivers. The American Trucking Association says trucking companies need 48,000 more drivers today. That number could balloon to 175,000 by 2024.
Self driving trucks are also safer. Trucks are involved in more than 400,000 accidents each year, leading to about 4,000 fatalities. In almost every case, human error is to blame. “We think that self driving technologies can improve safety, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies of our shipments,” says James Sembrot, head of logistics for Anheuser-Busch.
Just as with Uber, the capabilities of self driving vehicles are amazing, but what about the drivers? Do they have a place in the economy of the future? Otto thinks it will be a long time before trucks and cars can literally drive themselves without any human input. (Elon Musk plans to do just that with a demonstration run from LA to NYC in 2017.) But at some point, aren’t machines going to put drivers out of business? That has been an issue ever since General Motors installed robots at the Lordstown assembly plant in 1971 to manufacture the Chevy Vega.
Otto is testing a fleet of 6 trucks in and around the San Francisco area, learning how to make their self driving system work more flexibly and efficiently. Changes in autonomous driving are coming fast. As with all technological change, some will prosper and some will be disadvantaged. Society may benefit from fewer highway fatalities but what happens to all those big rig jockeys enshrined in legend and song remains to be seen.