Retrofitted driverless trucks tested on public roads

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A new startup company, Otto, is retrofitting commercial trucks with autonomous kits, comprising cameras and radar and lidar sensors, to make them driverless, and testing them on public roads in California, in a move that could have implications for traffic management.

Their project is set to “solve the harder and more important self-driving challenge, first by introducing the technology to the highways and making trucks fully autonomous.”

With trucks being responsible for 9.5% of road fatalities – 10-20% of which are caused by driver fatigue – and 28% of road pollution, the benefits of bringing safer, fuel-saving driverless ones to highways are obvious. 

Otto trucks can maintain a set speed, slow down, stop and accelerate according to the traffic in front of them. They currently will not perform lane changes, which should help traffic flow round them more freely under normal circumstances, but could end up creating tailbacks in the event of a blockage on the road ahead.

Otto – founded by former Google employees Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, with a team of workers who previously worked at companies including Google, Apple, Tesla, Logitech and Stanford – has already been testing a Volvo truck on a public highway in California, and envisions that eventually all trucks will be able to self-drive on the 222,000 miles of US highways.

The company is now seeking 1,000 volunteer truck drivers to have their cabins fitted with their autonomous kit – for free. As testing is still underway, the human drivers will be required to take control of their truck, should the technology fail.

The cost of the models and release date has not yet been announced, although Otto has stated that cost of their transformed trucks will be “a fraction” of building them from scratch.

Otto’s plans could help replace the shortage of truck drivers that the USA faces. In 2015 the American Trucking Association (ATA) reported a shortage of nearly 50,000 drivers, which is projected to grow to nearly 150,000 by 2020.

Other companies have already tested driverless trucks on public roads. Daimler, who granted the first autonomous truck license in Nevada, tested its Mercedes-Benz truck on German highways in October 2015. From late March to early April 2016, the European Truck Platooning Challenge saw groups of trucks successfully drive autonomously from starting points in Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, to their final destination of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 

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About Author

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs in charge of public agencies around the world as well as chairmen and CEOs of multinational transportation technology corporations. Tom's early career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).