Can a 50,000-pound semitrailer drive itself safely down the highway while the driver snoozes in back? Otto, a tech startup recently purchased for $670 million by Uber, is working to answer that question.
Over the next few months, Otto will test a fleet of Volvo VNL 789 cabs in a few states, according to USA Today. Drivers will be in the cabs to monitor.
Otto, started by some Google car veterans, is working on a suite of aftermarket cameras, sensors, radar and lidar to be fitted to the rigs. Otto wants to achieve what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers Level 4 autonomy, where the vehicle handles all driving and safety functions, but the driver can assume control in some situations.
Some in the trucking industry worry the technology could cost truck drivers their jobs.
But Otto founder Lior Ron says: "This technology works exit to exit, not really in a city, so you'll need the driver."
Otto hopes to solve a perennial problem that has led drivers to take those little white pills to keep their eyes open wide, as immortalized by singer Dave Dudley -- trucks sitting idle do not earn money. By sleeping in the back for the long, boring parts of a journey, drivers not only deliver the cargo sooner but are fresher when they go home to their families.
Scott Grenerth, a veteran driver and now regulatory affairs director of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, is skeptical. He welcomes enhancements that make drivers' lives easier but says: "A truck driver has to be 100 percent engaged in the act of driving, scanning the horizon for that SUV that's changing a tire on the shoulder or some idiot doing something dumb, and anything less isn't something I want to deal with, ever. I don't see computers being able to account for every situation a trucker might experience."