It was claimed to be an autonomous truck trial success, which saw Budweiser and Otto, the developer of an aftermarket add-on to enable autonomous truck driving, together demonstrate the first commercial freight delivery by autonomous truck, shipping a trailer load of Budweiser beer through Colorado from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
The 133-mile (214km) journey traversed the major metropolis of Denver and hauled 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer. Over the 120-mile freeway segment of the trip, completed last October, the truck drove completely autonomously. According to Otto, the state of Colorado collaborated on the demonstration.
According to Otto’s website, the company, which was recently acquired by ride-sharing and technology disruptive juggernaut Uber, is designing a new approach to modern transportation, starting with self-driving trucks.
At the website Otto says: “Long-haul transit is vital for nearly 70 per cent of the things we buy, yet hundreds of thousands of preventable trucking accidents happen each year on American highways. We believe it’s our responsibility to bring safer, self-driving technology to the road.”
And it’s true that human error is most often the cause of accidents. But there are also times when human intervention also saves accidents. And society at large is probably not ready for the sight a truck bowling down the road with nobody in the driving seat.
“Our self-driving trucks make highways safer,” announces Otto on its website. “Otto hardware and software are tuned for the consistent patterns and easy to predict road conditions of highway driving. Sensors are installed high atop existing trucks, offering vehicles an unobstructed view of the road ahead. With highways making up only five per cent of US roads, we can focus our testing on this specific set of trucking routes critical for the American economy.”
“We are always looking for new innovations and technology,” explained Anheuser Busch’s James Sembrot in a video posted by Otto. “Otto’s trucks are the next area of transportation innovation.”
“Teaming with Otto to deploy self-driving technology on the roads of Colorado is a monumental step forward in advancing safety solutions that will help Colorado move towards zero deaths on our roads,” said Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director, Shailen Bhatt. “Colorado will continue to focus on working with Otto and others on how to safely deploy this technology on our roads.”
Otto says the driver is still involved in picking up the load, making sure the freight is secured in the trailer. Once the truck is on the interstate, he flips a switch and the truck drives itself down the road. In this case, says Otto on a blog site, “Our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”
So far no one in the autonomous truck discussion has suggested the technology is sufficiently robust that the driver can sleep while the truck is going down the road. But that is what Otto is suggesting.
“This shipment is the next step towards our vision for a safe and productive future across our highways,” continues the Otto blog. “With an Otto-equipped vehicle, truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them. When you’ll see a truck driving down the road with nobody in the front seat, you’ll know that it’s highly unlikely to get into a collision, drive aggressively, or waste a single drop of fuel.”
The trucking and general news feeds immediately picked up on the story and a Google search on Budweiser and Otto will bring up plenty of pages. But to the point, we have yet to see whether there will be any comment from the public at large or the safety advocates and negative news media that view trucks and trucking as an easy target.
It was a great demonstration of technology and the potential to eliminate accidents through removal of the human element from the process. But though Budweiser and Otto might have poked a hornet’s nest with this rush to get into and ahead in the autonomous truck debate, so far there has been little backlash.