Otto, the self-driving truck company acquired by Uber, claimed today that it had completed the first real-world commercial shipment using an autonomous truck.
In a blog post, the company said it partnered with Budweiser to haul 51,744 cans of beer across 120 miles of highway using a self-driving truck with no driver. The beer traveled from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs last week. There was a driver tucked in the sleeper berth who monitored the two-hour voyage.
“This shipment is the next step towards our vision for a safe and productive future across our highways,” Otto executives wrote in the blog post. “With an Otto-equipped vehicle, truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them.”
Otto was founded in January by Anthony Levandowski, a veteran of Google’s autonomous car division, and Lior Ron, previously in charge of Google Maps.
“The incredible success of this pilot shipment is an example of what is possible when you deploy self-driving technology. It also showcases the importance of collaboration with forward-looking states like Colorado and innovative companies like Anheuser-Busch,” Ron said in a statement.
The companies did not specify the make or model of the truck that was outfitted with its self-driving vehicle kit. But according to Otto's blog post, the system used a combination of “cameras, radar, and lidar sensors mounted on the vehicle” to enable the truck to “see” the road. Along the way, Otto’s system made decisions about when to accelerate, brake, and steer without the help of a human.
This is the type of use of autonomous driving that many analysts envision.
“Even though it’s just a test, it shows what could be possible. I think real implementation of technology like this is still five years off, but it’s exciting to see players like Otto and Tesla pushing forward quickly with their plans,” Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner Inc. told Trucks.com. “It puts pressure on the mature players to execute more quickly.”
Last week, electric car company Tesla Motors said it plans to start shipping cars with full self-driving capability in the coming weeks in anticipation that regulators will eventually allow the vehicles to operate without any human intervention. The company has previously said it plans to build trucks and commercial vehicles that can operate autonomously.
“Autonomous technology is perfectly suited to long-haul applications; as the journeys are typically on pre-determined routes and mainly cover interstate highways where traffic flow is unidirectional,” said Tom De Vleesschauwer, director of industry analysis at IHS Markit, an industry research firm.
“As we continue to partner with long-haul carriers to ship our beers, we hope to see this technology widely deployed across our highways to improve safety for all road users and work towards a low-emissions future,” said James Sembrot, who head logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch.
Within the next 10 years, IHS expects that sales of autonomous heavy-duty trucks will grow gradually grow in the U.S. and could reach the 20,000 unit es mark by 2025. Most of those sales will be truck in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment.
De Vleesschauwer believes that regulators will require heavy trucks to keep human driver on board as a “supervisor, but clearly their role will be more ‘hands-off’ in terms of driving.”
The insurance industry also will want human in the truck to safeguard potentially valuable cargo — such as a load of beer. The driver will still needs to sign and check the bill of lading and handle other paperwork and deal with problems that may arise with shipments in progress, he said.
Truck manufacturers also are developing self-driving technology.
Last year, Daimler debuted its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the world’s first licensed autonomous truck.
The company also plans to explore so-called platoon technology, in which digitally linked packs of two to five trucks drive closely in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency.
The pack can be controlled by a captain in the cab of the first vehicle. The other vehicles follow with their own drivers or, eventually, autonomously.
Navistar International Corp. Chief Executive Troy Clarke said earlier this month that the company will increase its investment in autonomous vehicle and truck platooning technology, part of an effort to stave off rivals as industry interest in self-driving heavy trucks intensifies.
In September, federal regulators issued new autonomous vehicle guidelines. The government believes self-driving vehicles will lead to fewer accidents than vehicles with human drivers.
While some truck drivers believe the technology will eventually cost them there jobs, others believe it will make driving a big rig an easier, more desirable job.
“I believe that as autonomous technology becomes marketable, owner-operators and small-business trucking fleets have the most to gain economically from this advance,” Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association and a former driver, wrote in Trucks.com column earlier this month. “With electronic logging, a driver could shift control of the truck to its autopilot mode, sleep for several hours, check back in and be ready to navigate the vehicle through rush hour in some big city.”
Colorado traffic officials believe autonomous driving technology has the potential to improve highway safety.
“Teaming with Otto to deploy self-driving technology on the roads of Colorado is a monumental step forward in advancing safety solutions that will help Colorado move towards zero deaths on our roads,” said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
About 94 percent of traffic collisions are caused by human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Bhatt said state traffic regulators “took detailed measures to reduce any risks associated with the self-driving delivery project including testing validation, ride alongs and escorting the delivery.”