How Much of a Threat Will Otto and Other Self-Driving Trucks be to Drivers?

Self-driving trucks have officially arrived. Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber recently acquired, delivered 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer from Fort Collins in Colorado to Colorado Springs 120 miles to the south.

The rig’s human driver, Walt Martin, steered the truck from the brewery and, upon merging onto Interstate 25, hit a switch labeled “engage.” At that point, the first autonomous truck began driving by itself. Martin left the driver’s seat, and the 40-ton vehicle proceeded to its destination at 55 miles-per-hour. The world’s first driverless rig completed its journey successfully.

How does it work?

The truck was retrofitted with $30,000 worth of hardware and software from Otto, a San Francisco startup. Otto’s hardware operates on any truck with an automatic transmission, and it doesn’t look too complicated. Three light detection and ranging (LIDAR) units are fastened to the cab and trailer, while radar is bolted to the bumper and a high-precision camera is placed right above the windshield.

Otto is self-driving, not driverless

Otto, which Uber purchased for about $680 million, works only on the open road. At this point in its development, it can’t be trusted around careless pedestrians or kids on bicycles, but on the highway it was flawless, maintaining a consistant speed and safe following distance and changing lanes only when necessary.

Although Otto made the 120-mile trip without anyone in the driver’s seat, Walt Martin was nearby at all times. But whenever the truck must navigate ordinary city streets, a human driver must take over to manage the trickier driving conditions.

Is Otto a threat to truck drivers?

The short answer is “No, not yet.”

First of all, for the foreseeable future, Otto will require a professional driver to be on board. As mentioned, the technology has not advanced nearly enough to allow Otto to be on his own.

Second, there is currently a shortage of drivers that will only get worse in the future. The trucking industry hauls 70 percent of the nation’s freight — about 10.5 billion tons annually — and doesn’t have nearly enough drivers. And while the American Trucking Association estimates today’s shortfall at 48,000 drivers, they believe it could reach 175,000 by 2024.

So what good is it?

If you need to put a driver in a self-driving truck, it begs the question: “What’s the point?”

Although the rules are complicated, truckers cannot drive more than eleven hours each day or sixty hours in a week. As it stands now, a driver must park and spend the night in the sleeper berth.

Otto’s technology could allow the driver to get a truck on the freeway for a long trip and then hop into the berth right away. If the rules can be changed to count this time as being off-duty, trucks could run around the clock.

Let’s face it; these are changing times for the trucking industry. To learn more about the future of self-driving trucks or for tips on overcoming the driver shortage, contact a CDS specialist today.

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