Robot truckers on the highways

It may sound like the plot line of a new horror film — robot trucks on the interstates.

But get ready to hear more about Otto, a San Francisco startup aiming to bring autonomous driving to the 18-wheeler set.

Otto is the brainchild of Anthony Levandowski, an engineer who was part of Google’s self driving effort, the Associated Press reports. Other Googlers are part of the 4-month-old company, which has hired more than 40 people.

The idea of Otto is that a truck driver could nap or handle other tasks while the trucks sensors, lasers and software drive the vehicle. It is akin to jets that are flown by automated pilots with human pilots handling take off and landing.

“It’s really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Levandowski said.

The project may be years off. But of course, there are already skeptics.

Steven Shladover, program manager for mobility at the University of California’s Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, told the AP:

I don’t want to be on that highway when there is nobody there to take over a truck with 80,000 pounds of cargo and I don’t think I know anyone else who would want to be. The consequences of any kind of failure in any component would be too severe.

The company has already tested the technology on roads in Nevada. Now it is looking for 1,000 volunteer truckers who will install Otto’s self-driving kits into their cabs, at no cost.

But to Shladover’s concerns, is this idea even plausible?

Levandowski lists a few of the potential benefits about robot truckers:

  • They are less likely to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions than a human.
  • They will never get tired.

One issue is of course that robot truckers may put real drivers out of work.

Turns out, there’s been a growing truck driver shortage, with the shortfall expected to be 175,000 by 2024.

Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy for American Trucking Associations, said:

We are paying close attention because this could be huge for trucking in terms of labor costs and safety.

And perhaps another concern: Has anyone thought of how this will affect children, who have for decades have broken the monotony of a long drive by encouraging truckers to honk their horns?

Photo: An Otto driverless truck at a garage in San Francisco on May 12, 2016. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)


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  • Jim Bray-Old school security

    Self driving verticals are just around the corner. My question is who is going to write the liability insurance to cover the mistakes these verticals will make when there is no data to assess the risk?