Uber ATG upgrades its autonomous truck test fleet with new tech

Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group has a new version of its testing transport truck for autonomous tech. The new model features an updated technology stack, including a 64-channel spinning LiDAR array, which is something never used previously on any of the former Otto’s test trucks.

The Uber ATG truck notably drops all Otto branding, as you can see, since Uber retired that name in May following a trademark dispute raised by Canada’s Otto Motors, and after the self-driving trucking company Uber acquired became the impetus for a suit by Alphabet’s Waymo contesting that Otto execs took confidential company info when they departed Google.

Uber’s Advanced Technology Group has taken over ownership of the project, with Otto falling under its umbrella as of last year, and now the trucks have been upgraded with some aspects of ATG tech for the first time. But ATG trucks product manager Alden Woodrow told me the former Otto team based in San Francisco is still leading the truck tech.

“Otto was based in San Francisco, and so with the integration, most of our engineering effort is still based in San Francisco for the trucks,” he said. “But one of the great things about being part of this larger team is we have that team in Pittsburgh that has a really world-class team and that has had several years’ head start on developing similar technologies. So we work really closely with the team in Pittsburgh.”

Woodrow also noted that in addition to close collaboration between the Pittsburgh and San Francisco teams, the new ATG office in Toronto under Raquel Urtasun will offer additional opportunities to help further develop their tech.

The new Uber ATG truck tech loadout also includes upgraded components and software throughout the vehicle in addition to the new spinning LiDAR, and is completely refreshed, with new hardware sensors and new software components throughout. This updates the design that was used previously, including during Otto’s press-grabbing autonomous Budweiser freight shipment haul, which subsequently earned a Guinness World Record for “the longest continuous journey by a driverless and autonomous semitrailer truck.”

Woodrow also says that this tech refresh also was not made as a direct result of the ongoing Uber/Waymo legal fight. The LiDAR used in the new design is an off-the-shelf part (most likely an HDL-64E sourced by Velodyne, given the design and specs, though he wasn’t able to confirm due to confidentiality agreements), rather than one developed in-house.

“It’s an off-the-shelf system from a third-party, so it’s actually separate from some of the things at issue in the Waymo suit about us developing our own LiDAR, it’s a totally separate product,” Woodrow said. “This is totally independent of that; it’s always been part of the plan to integrate the Otto technology with the ATG technology. The Otto stack actually didn’t use 64-channel LiDAR at all.”

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Otto’s design never used LiDAR of this kind in its tech stack (a spinning, 64-channel module), Woodrow says, and the addition of its capabilities should help considerably with data available to the autonomous driving system.

“That really significantly improves what data the truck is able to capture about the world, so it builds a very high-quality point cloud of its surroundings,” he said. “So that really helps the software system make better decisions about what’s out there in the world and make better decisions.”

This new truck can be spotted in testing in SF and on neighboring highways, Woodrow says. I asked him how the California DMV feels about this, given some earlier reports that the licensing body was reportedly looking into its previous autonomous truck tests. Woodrow told me that they actually have a close relationship with the DMV, and that representatives were just in recently to get an update on their progress.

He also said he believes that their position is now that they consider the ATG trucks Level 2 vehicles, like Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot, meaning they don’t require autonomous licensing specifically. Every truck has a trained driver onboard ready to take control, Woodrow noted. I reached out to the DMV to confirm, but they didn’t immediately respond to my request for comment [Update: The DMV provided official comment, see below].

Uber ATG has also purchased a number of new trucks equipped with its new technology, and says it’s likely more San Franciscans will see the vehicles out and about on the roads as a result. He also said we can expect to see more demonstration runs like the Budweiser delivery in the future, though he added it’s a little too soon to talk about specifics just yet.

Update: The California DMV provided the following statement via spokesperson Artemio Armenta:

The DMV and CHP conducted an on-site visit on June 6 to assess the capability of the technology. The company has a “Level 2” driver assistance system that is in development and does not currently meet the definition of autonomous technology under California law.