Uber acquires self-driving truck company Otto

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A new acquisition will see ride-hailing service Uber extend its self-driving capabilities and expand its range of products and services into the freight transport and logistics industries, with the assistance of two founders of Google’s autonomous car project.

Uber has acquired Otto, a 90-plus person technology startup whose mission is to rethink transportation, starting with self-driving trucks and a platform to connect truckers with loads, in order to maximize the efficiency of the freight transport industry.

Otto was founded in January this year by Anthony Levandowski, one of the original members of Google’s self-driving car project, together with Lior Ron, who served as the head of product for Google Maps for five years. They were joined by two other former members of Project X, Claire Delaunay, a robotics lead, and Don Burnette, another veteran Google engineer.

Otto has developed an aftermarket kit of sensors, software and control equipment that can be fitted to existing vehicles, allowing long-haul trucks to self-drive on highways while drivers rest and relax. The company has successfully demonstrated the technology, and is continuing to test the system on highways in the San Francisco area.

According to a blog posting by Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick (below, standing left), Otto’s co-founder, Levandowski, will now report directly to him, and will lead Uber’s combined self-driving efforts across personal transportation, delivery and trucking, through their combined operations in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Pittsburgh.

Along with the introduction of self-driving capabilities to trucks, Otto’s other ambition is to develop a platform that will connect truckers to loads. The company cites figures that show one in seven (14%) tucks on the road are driving empty, contributing the severe congestion on the USA’s highways. Uber already possesses a variation on this technology, with a platform that connects drivers and their vehicles with passengers.

In his blog post, Kalanick said, “When it comes to this advanced technology stack, Otto plus Uber is a dream team. Anthony (Levandowski) is one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers: his first invention, a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider, is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Just as important, Anthony is a prolific entrepreneur with a real sense of urgency.

“Together, we now have one of the strongest autonomous engineering groups in the world; self-driving trucks and cars that are already on the road thanks to Otto and Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh; and the practical experience that comes from running ridesharing and delivery services in hundreds of cities, with the data and intelligence that comes from doing 1.2 billion miles on the road every month.

“In the last six years we’ve seen the profound impact that smartphone technology has had on transportation, as well as the delivery business. When people can push a button and reliably get an affordable ride across town, things change for the better, and quickly. And to Anthony, Lior and the Otto team – welcome to Uber. We’re pumped to have you on board. It’s time to move.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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