Lior Ron, cofounder and president of Otto, the driverless-truck company bought by Uber last year, has a response for Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who recently said that he doesn’t think artificial intelligence will affect jobs in the U.S. for at least “50 to 100 years”: it’s going to happen much sooner than that.
Speaking Monday at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco, Ron said we’ll start to see broad deployment of driverless trucks on roads within the next 10 years. Like many others who work in the fast-growing autonomous-car market, however, he thinks it will take a while before we have truly self-driving vehicles that don’t require any human intervention.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to happen in very discrete baby steps,” he said.
For instance, he expects to see fully autonomous vehicles first traversing city streets during the wee hours of the night when not many pedestrians are around, then more often during the day and in various driving conditions (which can still be quite tricky for self-driving cars and trucks to safely navigate), and so on.
And while some fear that autonomous trucks could eventually put truck drivers out of work, Ron says that in the near future Otto’s technology is likely to be more of a copilot than a replacement for human operators. Though the truck may be able to handle highway driving, humans will still be needed to do things like navigate city streets, he says.
Also, he notes, driving a truck is a grueling job that can only be done for so many hours of the day before the driver needs to rest. If the truck can keep going on its own while the human driver gets some sleep in the back, long trips might be safer and more efficient, too.
That said, there are lots of challenges to getting a truck to drive on its own that cars don’t have to deal with. Trucks have a lot less space to move around in their lane, for example. They react more slowly than cars to things like obstacles up ahead, and they require much more space to stop. Furthermore, the weight of a truck loaded down with cargo may be uneven and is likely to change from trip to trip—something that, Ron noted, software needs to be aware of.
Otto and Uber were recently sued by Waymo, the self-driving-car unit of Alphabet, which is alleging intellectual-property theft.