Otto is the former name of a company that focuses on developing autonomous technology for big-rig trucks. The idea was based on the fact that trucks make up only 5.6 percent of the vehicles on American roads but are responsible for 9.5 percent of traffic fatalities. By improving the safety and reliability of trucks, Otto’s founders reasoned that they could reduce the number of traffic fatalities nationwide and also boost the efficiency of the trucking industry. In May of 2017, Uber, which acquired Otto in August of 2016, dropped the name Otto from its branding. Instead, Uber now places the name “Ottomotto” on the side of its autonomous trucks.
The Germ of an Idea
Despite the fact that trucks only account for 5.6 percent of vehicles on the road, they account for more than 70 percent of all commercial shipping of goods. The system, however, is inefficient because of the limits of human drivers, who cannot stay awake for 24 hours at a stretch and become prone to mistakes when fatigue sets in. Otto’s founders noticed other companies delving into the world of autonomous cars but not self-driving trucks.
Application of the Idea
Otto decided that designing a truck from the ground up, including the 53-foot trailer, would have been prohibitively expensive and taken far too long. Since the founders wanted to get into the market immediately, it developed a system that could augment existing trucks. Their idea is not to supplant the driver right away. Rather, the driver will become a kind of supervisor of the truck, responsible for routine maintenance, fueling, and other support functions. The driver will also be able to sleep in the cab as the truck motors on down the highway.
To start with, the trucks outfitted with the company’s gear will act as Level 4 vehicles. They will still have their steering wheels and pedals so that the driver can take over whenever desired and also to exit the highway for fueling, bathroom breaks, and mealtimes. The system, which includes a spinning 64-channel light radar system called lidar, provides an unparalleled picture of the environment around the truck. It even looks out for other self-driving cars.
Aside from the reasons already stated of why the company chose autonomous trucks instead of autonomous cars, there are several other advantages, including the following:
- Trucks offer a higher vantage point to mount the lidar, which provides greater scanning distance.
- The greater scanning distance also provides more time to react to potential problems.
- There could be a 10-percent reduction in fuel consumption through vehicle platooning.
Platooning is similar to drafting during a bicycle race. All of the trucks behind the first will experience much better fuel economy because of the reduced drag. The system can also be programmed to switch truck positions when the highway is wide enough.
The First Steps
The company has already made its first autonomous delivery. In fact, a truck outfitted with the autonomous system successfully navigated more than 120 miles of Colorado roads to deliver a load of beer. During the trip, the driver was out of the driver’s seat the entire time. He was able to enjoy a magazine and completely confident in the vehicle’s ability to drive on the highway.
Aside from alleviating the boredom associated with long stretches of six-lane asphalt and wide-open spaces, the system frees the driver so that he or she can sleep. Through this innovation, drivers won’t be limited to 11-hour days and 8-hour sleep periods. They can crawl into the bunk and snooze until the system warns them that an exit is approaching or that the driver will have to take over for some other reason.
Drivers could snack, talk to their families, check up on their email, and even update their locations on Facebook in real time. The driver could also catch up on paperwork, check weather reports, get traffic updates, and do a range of other work-related duties. Because drivers would be able to go with their trucks 24 hours a day, they could complete routes much faster, make more money for themselves, and get home to their families much faster, too.
Self-Driving Trucks vs. Self-Driving Cars
Self-driving trucks might even hit the roads en masse before self-driving cars. Existing big rigs will only require outfitting with the lidar and a few other gadgets. Unlike autonomous cars, they don’t need to be designed and constructed from scratch. Even a classic 1948 Peterbilt can get a face-lift and drive itself off into the sunset.