Otto's Autonomous Semi-Truck Joins Growing Connected Truck Market

A great deal of ink is spilled on autonomous vehicle technology, but it's not the only innovation that fleet managers might one day use to boost driver safety and throughput.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 19, 2016

Otto Motors, a 40-person San Francisco startup staffed with a bevy of former Google employees (including a Google Maps lead), as well as recruits from Tesla and other firms at the nexus of transportation and technology, had a major coming-out party on May 17. The company released a video showing an 18-wheeler semi-truck hauling down a highway without anyone in the driver's seat (though there was a driver in the back seat, in case anything went wrong), and hundreds of news stories followed.

Otto has made a kit used to retrofit semi-trucks for autonomous operation. According to news reports, the company believes trucking to be a logical place for autonomous vehicles to take root, given the high cost of the vehicles—around $150,000 apiece, according to Wired, which makes the kit's $30,000 price tag more palatable—and the proposition of being able (in theory, at least) to have a "driver" take a nap in the truck's cab once his or her shift ends.

Last year, Daimler demonstrated an autonomously operated 18-wheeler that it predicts could be deployed commercially within a decade. Otto is the first company to offer a retrofitting solution to fleets that have already invested in late-model trucks (according to Wired, the kit works only with semis that have automatic transmissions, which have become commonplace only in the past two years).

But safety is a big part of Otto's proposition to trucking companies. By removing human error from the equation, autonomous vehicles may prove to be far safer than human-operated vehicles.

Still, there are other approaches to boosting truck safety. Last year, we reported on Olea Sensor Networks, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup that has developed sensor-based collision-prevention technology able to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects—and even determine whether animate objects are human or non-human. The firm is now working with automotive and trucking manufacturers to integrate the technology into driver-safety systems—communication platforms that monitor drivers' activity and surrounding environment, alerting them to various dangers, such as vehicles in blind spots or a stopped or slow-moving vehicle ahead of them. Although the system is not designed to help long-haul truckers avoid pedestrians on the highway, that is not likely to be an issue in countries with developed transportation infrastructures.

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