Intelligent Machines

Otto’s Self-Driving 18-Wheeler Has Made Its First Delivery

A load of 2,000 cases of Budweiser is the first cargo to be shipped by an autonomous tractor-trailer.

A truckload of beer has rolled into Colorado Springs. That may sound unremarkable, but in this case it really was the truck that did the work—the rig doing the hauling was driving itself.

Otto, the autonomous-trucking company behind the delivery, had already announced that it was going to start delivering goods to warehouses and stores as early as next year. But it appears to have beaten its own predictions.

The run was a modest one, according to Bloomberg—about 120 miles along Interstate 25, between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. But the demonstration suggests that autonomous trucks are much closer to commercial use than autonomous cars.

Not everyone might be comfortable with the advance. As Farhad Manjoo recently pointed out in the New York Times, autonomous trucks have the potential to genuinely disrupt the economy. If an 18-wheeler can make deliveries all day long, distribution networks will be transformed and drivers’ jobs lost. Such is the impact of technology on employment.

But Otto says it isn’t planning on doing away with truckers’ jobs any time soon—just changing them.

The truck that carried all those Buds had a human driver for the ride from the brewery to the highway and again for the last leg of the journey, only driving itself once it was safely cruising down Interstate 25. In an interview with Wired, Otto cofounder Lior Ron said that’s the model the company envisions, at least in the near term: humans in control for the first- and last-mile portions of the trip, and Otto’s fully autonomous system running things in between.

Like all self-driving initiatives, Otto, which was recently acquired by Uber, faces an uncertain legal landscape, because the federal government has yet to weigh in on how it plans to regulate autonomous trucking. And while it’s currently testing a small fleet of trucks on roads in California, the company hasn’t made any indication that a large-scale commercial rollout is close at hand.

Still, it may not be long until we pass a truck on the highway, look up into the cab, and see no one there.

(Read more: Wired, Bloomberg, “Uber Is Betting We’ll See Driverless 18-Wheelers Before Taxis,” “Self-Driving Trucks May Hit the Road Before Google’s Cars,” “Uber and Amazon Want to Muscle In on the Shipping Industry”)

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