For those doubting that autonomous vehicles are going to be driving alongside humans very soon, consider the first delivery made by Otto while a driver actually left the driver’s seat during the long highway portion of the trip: The Uber-owned self-driving transport truck company made its first delivery recently, moving 50,000 cans of Budweiser from Fort Collins, CO to Colorado Springs.
The inaugural delivery saw the truck’s human driver navigate the city portions of the trip, letting the experienced professional handle foot traffic, stop signs with busy intersections and other unpredictables like people walking dogs, and then took over once the rig had successfully merged onto Interstate 25, handling the relatively simple highway drive for 120 miles, while the Otto’s driver actually left his seat, since the truck is capable of full Level 4 autonomy while on the highway, keeping distance between itself and cars ahead, and changing lanes very rarely when the system decides it absolutely has to do so.
Otto’s technology includes $30,000 worth of additional hardware that can work with any big rig that uses an automatic transition. Six test trucks are in place in the Bay area, continually running trials while tweaking software. The company’s also addressing a big need – current estimates put truck driver numbers at almost 50,000 below the actual demand, and the lack of qualified people willing to do the job is actually widening.
Uber acquired Otto last summer and has said it will continue to run the company as a separate brand. Expect to see its self-driving tech start becoming a much more common site on actual roads long before we see autonomous personal consumer cars with any kind of regularity.