Picture an 18-wheel truck barreling down the highway with 36,287kg of cargo and no one but a robot at the wheel.
To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google’s driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona.
However, Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google’s self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs are to be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system.
Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup that he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay.
Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras, so they would eventually be able to navigate the more than 354,056km of US highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks.
Google’s self-driving cars have logged about 2.57 million kilometers in autonomous mode without being involved in an accident that resulted in a deaths or major injuries. Of the more than 20 accidents involving its self-driving cars, Google has accepted the blame for only one — a February collision with a bus in Mountain View, California.
It would be easier to brush off robot trucks as a far-fetched concept if not for Levandowski’s background.
Levandowski has been working on automated driving for more than a decade, starting in 2004 with a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider that is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also designed PriBot, a self-driving Prius that crossed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to deliver a pizza in 2008 before Google unveiled its fleet of autonomous cars.
Otto already has assembled a crew of about 40 employees experienced in self-driving cars to transplant the technology to trucks. With former employees from Google, Apple and Tesla Motors, Otto boasts that its team is made up of “some of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology.”
Although only four months old, Otto already has outfitted three big-rig cabs with its automated technology. The company completed its first extended test of its system on public highways in Nevada last weekend.
Otto is looking for 1,000 truckers to volunteer to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs, at no cost, to help fine-tune the technology. The volunteer truckers would still be expected to seize the wheel and take control of the truck if the technology fails or the driving conditions make it unsafe to remain in autonomous mode, mirroring the laws governing tests of self-driving cars on public streets and highways.
Otto has not set a timetable for completing its tests, but hopes to eventually retrofit all the U.S. trucks on the road. That would encompass more than 4.7 million trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Levandowski said self-driving trucks are not as scary as they might sound. Robot truckers are less likely than a human to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions and would never get tired. Between 10 and 20 percent of the about 4,000 fatal accidents in the US each year involving trucks and buses are linked to driver fatigue, based on estimates gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“It is really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Levandowski said.
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