Vehicles photo

The focus in autonomous driving lately has been on advanced driver assistance systems, like automatic emergency braking, that are available right now in passenger cars. And our attention is easily diverted to fully autonomous test cars like Google’s experiment. But now Otto promises to bring fully autonomous driving to long-haul semitrucks.

It’s not surprising that Otto’s team of about 40 includes former employees of Google, Nokia HERE, and Tesla, including cofounder Lior Ron, who was a lead on Google Maps. But why target the un-sexy tractor trailer with Otto’s technology?

“If you want to make driving safer, you address highways; if you want to address highways, you address trucks,” said Ron in a phone interview. “There’s nothing more impactful for society in the next decade.” He cited research that showed highways are the biggest problem in modern transportation. They account for about 5 percent of US roads, he said, but almost half of fatal accidents happen on highways. “Highways are not equipped to handle modern times,” he said.

So Otto is bringing the future to the outdated infrastructure by retrofitting existing trucks with autonomous driving capabilities. The latest trucks already have computers on board and some sensors, just as modern passenger vehicles do. Otto equips the truck with the lidar, radar, cameras, and software the truck is missing to drive on its own.

Not that Otto just turns the truck loose. There is a built-in learning curve for the driver. “When the driver is driving but we’re confident enough to drive for him,” Ron said, “the system will tap him on the shoulder to indicate we’ve got it covered. We’ll drive 10, 20, or 100 miles at a time with the driver supervising.”

The final step, which is not quite ready but which Ron says is on the “as soon as we can” timeline, is to get the truck driving all on its own when it safe to do so—with the driver napping in the back of the cab. When conditions get trickier, the system will ask the driver to come back to control then pull aside and wait for him to get back into the driver’s seat.

Otto is not in the business of building trucks, and it does not want to be. It’s currently testing its system using Volvos and other semitrucks with some basic capabilities near its headquarters in California. “The beauty of trucks is that they are more standardized than passenger cars,” Ron said. “Trucks are by law more regulated. There’s only a handful of brake providers, a handful of steering column providers, etc. The Otto system can be adapted, but by and large it will be standard and will evolve over time.”

The other advantage is that, except for the first and last few miles, 18-wheelers follow some pretty simple routes compared to the car you drive every day. “Trucks don’t have to drive every street, every corner. We only have to map the same trucks over the same routes and connect them so they can inform each other of conditions.” And the sensors are mounted way up high, so they can see further down the road and respond to things that are further away.

Ron noted that Otto is not likely to replace drivers anytime soon, only make it safer for them to operate their vehicles on long-haul trips. “You have to solve fueling and safety issues before you can eliminate the driver completely,” he said. “Otto is about making our economy more efficient and highways safer.”