Silicon Valley is getting the message that the self-driving vehicle revolution may come to trucking before the consumer car market.
An all-star team of tech veterans on Tuesday announced the launch of Otto, a company that is developing hardware kits that can convert existing commercial trucks into autonomous vehicles. The company was co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, the former technical lead of Google’s autonomous car division and Lior Ron, former product lead of Google Maps.
While they understand that a wide range of truck manufacturers have already spent years developing autonomous trucks from the ground up, they believe their Silicon Valley savvy will allow them to zoom past these rivals and accelerate the arrival of self-driving trucks.
“It’s time to rethink the way we move goods on the road,” Levandowski and Ron said on Otto's website. “We’re a team comprised of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology, and we are committed to reimagining transportation — not just improving it.”
They said self-driving technology will create “a more sustainable, productive — and above all, safer — transportation future. Our team has come from many places, including Google, Apple, and Tesla. We are at Otto because we’re driven by an urgency and deep obligation to accelerate the future.”
In addition to Google, companies like Tesla and Apple are working on their own self-driving car programs. Otto managed to poach employees from both those companies, and now has a staff approaching 40, with about 24 job openings posted in its website.
While self-driving cars have been the focus of much of the autonomous conversation, many analysts believe that long-haul trucking will adopt these technologies much faster for a simple reason: They are poised to have a big impact on the bottom line.
Indeed, in their introductory blog post, Otto's founders list many of those reasons: the 4.3 million commercial trucks on the highways cause too many accidents; many of these trucks are traveling empty, and thus inefficient; and high turnover is leading to a potential shortage of drivers.
Rather than build a new truck, Otto believes it can hurry the future along by helping current truck companies upgrade the trucks they already own.
“To speed the adoption of self-driving technology, we began by equipping existing trucks on the road with our unique self-driving kit, designed to empower truck drivers to drive more safely and efficiently,” the founders wrote in their post. “We are developing a suite of sensors, software and truck enhancements coming together in a product that can be quickly outfitted on existing trucks. Testing the technology is currently underway on highways with our research fleet, and we recently completed an autonomous demo of the technology on a public highway. We intend to enhance the capabilities of the Otto truck, collect safety data to demonstrate its benefits, and bring this technology to every corner of the U.S. highway system.”
While automakers are rapidly pushing the development of self-driving cars and adding autonomous features such as automatic braking to prevent crashes to consumer vehicles, heavy-duty truck makers are now starting to invest heavily in the technology.
Earlier this year, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure sponsored the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016– a demonstration in which six semi-autonomous truck platoons from Belgium, Germany and Sweden drove on public roadways to Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Researchers are testing platoon technology, where tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two to five trucks drive in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. The pack can be controlled by a “captain” in the cab of the front vehicle and the rest could follow autonomously. This could ultimately reduce labor costs by reducing the need for drivers.
The U.S. Army plans a similar test on a public highway in Michigan later this year.
Elsewhere, Swedish truck manufacturer Scania and researchers of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm are examining how self-driving dump trucks can safely handle obstacles on the road and automatically conduct tasks like picking up and unloading gravel.
They plan to do a live test of their technology at a Swedish mining site in the fall.
The researchers are discovering that the development of self-driving trucks provides a greater challenge because of their greater mass and inertia.
“When you do this for heavy trucks, it’s different because of weight and dynamics,” Bo Wahlberg, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, told Trucks.com. “Trucks are much more complicated—much more difficult and more dangerous.”
Autonomous trucks also require new information every 50 milliseconds to make the right decisions about steering, accelerating and braking, Wahlberg said.
Here in the U.S., Daimler’s Freightliner division is testing its Inspiration autonomous concept on Nevada roadways.
Google also is looking at trucks. Earlier this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.
Google envisions a typical delivery truck – similar to what UPS and FedEx use – with lockers on the outside. The truck would robotically drive to a home or office and digitally signal the recipient that their package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, type a code into the locker’s keypad and remove their package.
Despite these advances, fully autonomous vehicles will still require more technology, according to a study by consulting firm Roland Berger, and that’s going to be expensive.
Packing a big rig with all the sensors and computer processing to operate on its own will add about $23,400 to the price of the typical heavy-duty truck, pushing the cost of a tractor-trailer from $165,000 to $200,000, depending on the make and model, the consulting firm wrote in its report, “Automated Trucks: The next big disruptor in the automotive industry?”
But labor and fuel savings provide an economic incentive for that investment. A fully automated truck, the study concluded, would see fuel consumption reduced by as much as 10 percent. Moreover, labor makes up about one-third of a firm’s cost of operating each truck, according to Stephen Sashihara, chief executive of Princeton Consultants in Princeton, N.J.
But first, the industry must get through significant regulatory hurdles, the Roland Berger study said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to issue its first guidelines for autonomous vehicles within the next few months, a first step in what will likely be a long rule-making process.