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Google self-driving pioneers think big-rigs could get there before cars, started company to prove it


Fifteen former Google engineers, including long-time self-driving pioneer Anthony Levandowski, have left the company to create Otto, a start-up based on bringing partial autonomous driving to big-rig trucks.

As the NYT notes, the start-up has great creds: Levandowski designed a self-driving motorcycle while still a grad student, and his first start-up was acquired by Google. Co-founder Lior Ron was previously lead engineer on Google Maps.

Otto’s plan differs from Google’s self-driving car project in two ways …

First, The Verge reports that Otto aims to retrofit the kit to existing vehicles, rather than manufacture new ones. Second, the system only facilitates autonomous driving on highways.

Otto would at least initially focus on highway driving, which account for the overwhelming majority of a typical truck route; the human drivers would still handle surface streets, loading, unloading, and the like. Right now, the company is testing with the Volvo VNL 780, but hopes to work with many so-called Class 8 trucks, which are the largest, heaviest trucks on American roads.

The company can’t yet say how much it will cost, but does say that it will be a ‘small fraction’ of the typical $100k plus cost of a truck. Timing is also unknown as yet, but Levandowski seems confident Otto will come to market ahead of similar efforts by truck companies like Daimler and Volvo Trucks.

I think the trucking folks are doing a great job, and eventually they would probably solve the problem. But a company that is used to building trucks is not well structured to solve a technology problem. I’m not trying to dismiss them in any way, I think it’s fantastic what they’re doing. But I think it’s a different timeframe and objectives as to what we’re trying to solve and what they’re trying to solve.

Retrofitting will also allow the capability to be deployed much faster than having to replace existing truck fleets.

The idea of semi-autonomous trucks that still require human drivers may also provide Otto with an easier path through the regulatory maze, and provide greater social acceptance than putting drivers out of work.

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