Otto is popping a cold Budweiser after the company completed its first delivery using a self-driving big rig. It completed the 120-mile journey from an Anheuser-Busch facility in Loveland, CO to Colorado Springs, CO in the early hours of October 20th.
50,000 cans of Budweiser are being enjoyed by the residents of Colorado Springs in what is a hallmark achievement of Uber-owned Otto. No craft beers in the first delivery? Come on Otto.
The semi – a Volvo – was outfitted with dozens of cameras and sensors, along with a state trooper that monitored the truck’s performance at a distance. The patrolman was impressed with Otto’s ability to maintain an average speed of 55mph and stay in its lane.
Initially, the truck was driven by a driver to a weigh station in Fort Collins. From there, it drove 100 miles without human intervention until it reached the city limits and the driver took over. During the short trip, the driver monitored the truck from the sleeping berth.
Otto Retrofit Trucks instead of Building
Otto is taking the path of least resistance with self-driving semi trucks. Instead of manufacturing trucks, the company is opting to build out packages to install on existing trucks. It includes cameras of lane detection, LIDAR for 3D mapping environments, front-facing sensors to detect obstacles and other vehicles and GPS to track the big rig.
All of those technologies should be including into new semi trucks for safety. But, instead of replacing drivers, it should be used to make the road safer. Unless Otto and Uber plan on campaigning for Basic Income for all Americans. Uber bought Otto with one goal in mind. Uber Freight. The money isn’t in being a glorified taxi service; it’s in shipping and logistics.
You don’t see owners of trucking companies hurting for cash. And Uber needs to staunch the cash burn at some point if it ever expects to IPO. And freight hauling is a goldmine.
Otto Pushes Benefits
With self-driving semi trucks, Otto promises a day will come with lower insurance premiums and higher fuel efficiency thanks to the elimination of unnecessary acceleration. At first, the trucks will have a driver, but Otto envisions the day of eliminating the driver. When it can handle our crumbling infrastructure without breaking apart, then I’ll believe.
Self Driving Semi Truck Pitfalls
The lower insurance premiums raise an interesting question. What if there’s no driver and the self-driving technology fails and gets into an accident? Who is at fault? The trucking company? LIDAR isn’t human, so what responsibility does the trucking company have? Otto and Uber better have one hell of an iron-clad liability waiver when the minivan full of kids gets nailed because the front facing sensors failed.
It’s extremely doubtful the major trucking companies will roll over and assume liability if it’s a technology failure. And the optics of a crushed car with a driverless big rig on top? There’s not enough lobbyist cash in the world to save you from the Congressional subpoena.
Suppliers are hoping for cheaper rates but come now. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Why would it lead to lower rates? Not paying the driver? Companies barely pay the drivers. The average pay for truck drivers is between 28 cents and 40 cents. And they get paid hub miles – city limit to city limit. An average truck driver is giving up around 3000 miles for free per year.
Those thinking the costs of shipping will plummet need to wake up. Wages have stagnated. The money is in ownership (company) and the freight dealers (the folks handling the loads). Then you get down to the driver who only makes money when the truck is moving. Slow loading? Not getting paid. Weather issues? Not getting paid.
And then there’s the expectation the driver is the patchwork mechanic, inspector, customer service rep and the list is limitless. All for 28 – 40 cents a mile. Sorry suppliers and consumers, nothing is getting cheaper. It’s getting automated. There’s a difference.
Putting aside the regulatory and legal questions, what Otto demonstrated was extremely unsafe. The driver monitoring systems from the sleeping berth while on the trip. Granted, that’s controlled as hell, but the endgame is not.
What if a sensor fails after smacking a pothole (drive through Memphis)? All of the sudden the truck decides the whole interstate is its lane. How quickly can the driver react to assume full control of the semi? What if it’s rush hour and everyone is clipping along at 65mph? Hell of a time for the sensors to fail.
That’s one of the hundreds of scenarios.
Otto Wins on Technology
The tech placed in the Volvo is incredible and should make it into every semi truck. It will make everyone safer on the roads by supplementing current safety technology. Don’t rush to jump headfirst into autonomous big rigs. Optimus Prime isn’t going to emerge when the sensors fail and start saving the day.
Automation in trucking will inevitably happen, but we are at an inflection point. Companies are jumping headfirst without regards for the consequences. Other ‘Uber for whatever’ companies run afoul of regulations and various laws in the attempt to push disruptive business models.
80,000 pounds of a driverless semi-truck doesn’t give a damn about DOT regulations when the sensors fail – and they will. Accidents happen and can be mitigated by slow walking the technology to team drivers, solo drivers, eventual solo drivers monitoring the road and the systems at the wheel, and the driverless big rigs.
There’s also the benefit of not shattering the US economy because a company sees it can squeeze more cash by eliminating driver.
None of the questions should take away from the moment. It’s an incredible achievement by Otto. How cool is it to have a Bud during tonight’s World Series delivered to you by a self-driving big rig? They should have kept the cans as a milestone.