Well before self-driving cars hit the road, fleets of robotic long-haul rigs may be shipping goods across the country.
A startup called Otto is the latest company working on automated truck driving. And Otto’s team includes some engineers from the self-driving team at Google, as well as from Tesla, Apple, and Cruise Automation, who have joined the company to develop technology that turns a conventional truck into a partially automated vehicle.
Trucking could be a smart way to commercialize automated driving technology. Truck drivers spend a great deal of time driving on open highways, which is a lot easier for an automated driving system to handle. It’s also possible for automated trucks to drive in tightly-packed, aerodynamic platoons. And for trucking companies, small efficiencies can add up to big savings.
Some truck manufacturers, including Volvo and Daimler, are also exploring automated trucking, and other startups, such as Peloton Tech, have already tested such systems.
The one problem for all these players is that—for the time-being at least—truck drivers will still need to take over when the vehicles enter built-up areas, and technically they’ll need to be in control when a truck is driving on the highway. That means that automated trucks won’t be able to drive longer than a person would.
That might change, though, providing regulators can be convinced that letting 80,000-pound robots loose on the highways is a good idea.