This week I will be wrapping up the conversation on automated trucking by discussing some of the technology used by Otto, as well as processes used to develop and test this technology. As previously mentioned, Otto is a company that retrofits self-driving technology to semi-trucks. They hope to bring automated trucks to the masses by developing technology that is sleek, cost-effective, and most importantly, safe.
Otto has just starting to roll out new technology that fits sleekly on the cabs of Volvo trucks. The equipment includes four-forward facing cameras, radar, and a box of accelerometers that product manager Eric Berdinis boasts is “as close as the government allows you to get to missile-guidance quality.” (Technology Review) Particularly important to this equipment is a lidar system which uses pulsing laser to compile a picture of the trucks’ surroundings. Otto is currently purchasing lidar boxes from third-party manufacturers. These cost $100,000 alone, but Otto has a team designing their own version that could cost less than $10,000 in the near future.
Inside the cab is a custom-built, micro-supercomputer that Berdinis claims, provides the most computing muscle ever crammed into such a small package. Lastly, Otto outfits trucks with a drive-by-wire box to turn the computer’s output into physical truck-control signals. There are also two Big Red Buttons in the cab which the driver can use to regain control of the vehicle. Even without these buttons, the system is designed to give control back to the driver if there are any urgent tugs on the steering wheel or heavy pumps on the pedals.
Otto earned their first true test drive in last October when an automated truck transported 2,000 cases of Budweiser 125 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. This experiment was the first of its kind, never before had a self-driving truck taken to public roads. This trip revealed what great potential this technology has, but also revealed its limitations. State police and Otto employees escorted the truck the entire distance. It was also guided by a lead driver whose purpose it was to clear the lane in front of the truck. Additionally a driver in the cabin was needed to bring the truck on and off the highway and to monitor the vehicle during the duration of the trip.
But early signs look promising and Otto is doing what they can to make their technology more commercially viable. They are even willing to give drivers the technology for free to try it out. Long term, their goal is to provide trucks with a two to three year payback period. That’s likely to mean that it would cost $30,000 for a retrofit. The driver shortage plays a role in the development of automation technology too. Drivers have come to Otto saying, “We’ll buy ten trucks if you can provide the drivers too.”
Otto, however, is taking a more cautious approach than companies like Uber until the technology is developed further. Uber has relied strongly on consumer popularity to take the roads first and worry about regulations later. It doesn’t seem that the trucking industry will have that privilege. Almqvist, who heads product safety for Volvo Trucks, states, “If we (take the roads) too soon and have an accident, we’ll hurt the industry. And if you lose the public’s trust, it’s very difficult to regain it.”
It seems that the future for companies like Otto is very bright. However, until the cost can be brought down and safety can be guaranteed, Otto is exercising extreme caution. Berdinis notes, “We won’t ship until we’re confident that there are no situations where we’d need a human to immediately take control of the truck.”
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