Movement in the autonomous vehicle space accelerated once again.
Four ex-Google engineers, including the man who built Google’s first self-driving car, announced “Otto”, an autonomous truck retrofitting business.
The service isn’t vaporware. “Otto” is currently operating on Nevada highways.
BackChannel reports The Man Who Built Google’s First Self-Driving Car Is Now a Trucker.
Founded by four ex-Google engineers?—?including Anthony Levandowski, the man who built Google’s very first self-driving car?—?Otto is applying Google’s all-or-nothing approach to commercial big rigs: ditch human drivers, avoid thousands of road deaths, help the environment, and if all goes well, make a ton of money along the way.
Otto, which is based in San Francisco, currently has around 40 employees, some of whom previously worked at Apple, Tesla, Cruise Automation and Here Maps. Although the company was formed in January, the LinkedIn profiles of three of Otto’s four founders still show them working at Google.
Otto, which came out of stealth today, is less interested in brand new trucks than in the estimated 4.3m big rigs already on American roads. Otto has already bought and retro-fitted three Volvo cabs with lidar, radar and cameras, and driven a handful of fully autonomous miles?—?without even a safety driver?—?on the highways of Nevada.
It says its aftermarket self-driving kit will sell for a “small fraction” of the $100,000-$300,000 price of a new tractor cab.
Backchannel discussed “Otto” with co-founder Lior Ron, an ex-product lead for Google Maps and Google’s Motorola smartphones. A partial transcript follows.
BackChannel: Why commercial transport? Is there anything more old school than a tractor-trailer rig?
Lior Ron: Because of federal regulations, a truck can only drive 11 hours a day today with a single driver. After 10 hours, the accident rate goes exponentially higher. If we can make it drive safely 24/7, more than doubling its capacity and utilization, that’s a very strong financial argument.
BackChannel: I’m guessing that navigating state and government regulations will be a big part of Otto’s future.
Lior Ron: The Department of Transportation and a lot of other great folks are getting involved in bringing the right regulations. And in many states outside of California, there are no specific regulations either way, which means that it’s actually legal to drive and test autonomous vehicles on many roads. We’re going to continue our testing with urgency but also work with regulators and other bodies to show we can have a truck drive itself more safely than a truck driver, all of the time.
BackChannel: But your technology will only work on highways?
Lior Ron: That’s right. There are only 222,000 miles of highway in the US, just 5% of the roads in the country. They’re easier to map and it’s a much more constrained problem to solve than all those city and rural streets. There are no pedestrians or traffic lights but you do drive at high speeds and you do need to see far ahead.
We’re optimizing for this kind of driving, with sensors mounted up on the cabin for a much higher vantage point. For now, all the technology is on the tractor but we might add some components to the trailer in the future.
BackChannel: When will we see the first driverless truck carrying a commercial cargo?
Lior Ron: We have the basic technology in place and are already testing it on public roads. We want to demonstrate a cargo route in the foreseeable future, to show that our technology is commercially viable. We are fully funded by employees, who came together to enjoy this and get there as soon as possible. The approach and the team we put together have the ability to do that very fast.
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