Multiple companies are rolling out automated semi-trucks, but this technological progression threatens the livelihood of millions of truckers. Uber has been using its self-driving trucks to transport goods in Arizona. SAN FRANCISCO -- The trucks rumble out of California ports laden with freight destined for all points east, an incessant ballet of goods, gear and labor long synonymous with commerce, independence and the open road. But a key player in this quintessentially American dance could soon disappear: the trucker. A new technological dawn is breaking over an industry that moves 70% of the nation's wares, one that promises to impact the lives of 3.5 million truck drivers similar to how tractors revolutionized farming a century ago.
A Silicon Valley startup founded by former Google employees is looking to radically change long-haul trucking. Otto is developing a self-driving truck upgrade kit for commercial rigs. As with the race to develop self-driving cars, Otto is not alone in these ambitions, but self-driving trucks could lead to unintended consequences for local economies, particularly in small towns that rely on the trucking industry. Otto debuted with its plan in a Medium post published Tuesday. The startup highlights the need for self-driving trucks by citing the deteriorating quality of life for drivers, road congestion, pollution and safety.
Self-driving cars are very much a part of the future of tech, with Google, Uber, Apple and plenty of other top names working to develop autonomous vehicles. That's where Otto, a startup that has come out of stealth, is aiming to shape the future. Founded by former Googlers Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay, Otto wants to "rethink" the commercial trucking industry. In a Medium post, Levandowski, who lead Google's self-driving car efforts, and Ron, formerly with Google Maps and Motorola, explained that not only do trucks account for an oversized slice of pollution in the U.S. -- 28 percent of road pollution despite making up just one percent of all traffic, they claim -- but they cause a large number of fatalities, are inefficient and, to top it off, there's an increasing shortage of drivers. That creates the perfect storm for a tech-based solution, Otto's founders believe.
To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google's driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona. But Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google's self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system. Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of U.S. highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google's self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup the he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay. Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of U.S. highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks. For now, the robot truckers would only take control on the highways, leaving humans to handle the tougher task of wending through city streets.
With the likes of Daimler, Volvo, and Uber working on self-driving trucks, it's no surprise that the granddaddy of autonomous vehicles, Waymo, is getting in on the big-rig action too. Waymo (formerly the Google driverless car program, and now a standalone company under the Alphabet umbrella) is working to commercialize its technology, and today confirmed it's exploring how its self-driving know-how can transform the trucking industry. "Self-driving technology can transport people and things much more safely than we do today and reduce the thousands of trucking-related deaths each year," Waymo said in a statement. Truck crashes kill 4,000 people on US roads every year, and injure 116,000 more. There's a shortage of truck drivers now, which the American Trucking Associations predicts could worsen, leaving the industry short 175,000 drivers by 2024.