A new company, , is focusing self-driving technology on a decidedly unsexy aspect of the open road: truck driving. Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay, Otto's founders and ex-Googlers, want to revolutionize the highway by retrofitting trucks out on the road today with self-driving capabilities.
Otto's technology is based on the idea that truck drivers, who under current regulations drive a maximum of eleven hours per day, will "change eleven hours' driving into twenty-four" says co-founder Lior Ron in an (Ron was a product lead on Google Maps). The company would not be creating new trucks, but creating devices that could be outfitted upon existing trucks. "Sensors are installed high atop existing trucks, offering vehicles an unobstructed view of the road ahead," according to Otto's website. The company plans on selling kits, which will include monitoring technology, for a "fraction" of what new trucks go for.
Otto's founders make a compelling if hyperbolic case in a . The most highlighted sentence in their post discusses the environmental impact of trucking, noting that "[l]arge trucks make up one percent of vehicles on the road but create 28 percent of road-based pollution." The , though, says that freight trucks only creates 22 percent of all road-based carbon dioxide. Their Medium post also fails to address how Otto's technology might address this problem. Otto's Medium post also warns that "we've become complacent about the significant toll of traffic-related accidents," and cites statistics related to large truck fatalities to make its case, while ignoring the fact that according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the nation is in the midst of a .
The other open question is about the role of drivers in this future. Otto-enhanced vehicles will most likely require drivers. Ron tells Backchannel that Otto will "virtually tap on the truck driver's shoulder, and say, for the next 100 miles don't worry, we got it." Ron also confirms that Otto sensor will only work on highways, meaning that the human driver would need to complete a delivery within an urban environment. But if drivers are on the road 24 hours a day, will they be getting paid for twenty-four hours worth of work? Will drivers only be employed as part of a transitional period, moving towards full automation?
Otto, which has not confirmed if it's named after the lovable stoner bus driver from The Simpsons, has already shown its technology can work on three old Volvo trucks they're driven through the long desert highways of Nevada. Ron tells Backchannel that Otto considers itself a technology company, suggesting an approach favored by Uber and Lyft. But as those companies in Austin, it can be difficult, if not impossible to enter an industry and not become embroiled within its politics.
Still, the first trucks with self-driving capabilities are coming. Ron declined to give any deadlines for when the company's technology will become commercially available, but promised as soon as they are able, they will get Otto into the world "very fast."