Although highways are most known on the internet for wacky Big Wheel races and heroic kitten rescues, they also play a vital role in the transport of freight across the country. Between 1987 and 2002, the distance trucks hauling tons of cargo traveled more than doubled. We want a lot of stuff, and we want it “just in time,” and it’s starting to look like self-driving trucks fit surprisingly well into that design, especially now that one has successfully delivered 50,000 cases of Bud.
Why would we trust trucks with massive amounts of beer on the highway when most states won’t trust a self-driving car on city streets? The big challenge many self-driving cars face is in stop and go traffic, an environment that’s constantly changing, full of gray areas, and thick with humans being their unpredictable, counterintuitive selves. As a result, many cars that are even partially autonomous can struggle to figure out how to navigate that, sometimes with fatal results.
The highway, though, is blissfully free of such problems. Highways have no cross traffic, have clear and consistent rules for a robot to follow, and there’s fewer chances for humans to screw up. While a bad driver might cut off a robot on the highway, and speeding might be an issue, for a robot it’s generally pretty simple to get a truck from Exit A to Exit B: Plant yourself in the right lane, go the speed limit, and let a human know when you get to an exit.
That’s more or less the design Otto, a company Uber recently bought, is working on. And they’re already starting with beer delivery (what monster would cut off a truck with beer?). The company retrofits any automatic semi with a few sensors, a few buttons, and that’s pretty much it. Legally speaking, a human needs to be behind the wheel in most states, but that human might as well crack open a book and keep an ear out for alerts. When the truck hits the right exit, the human takes over and guides it to its final destination. Otto foresees depots at every exit where a truck pulls in and a human hops in the cab to drive it the last few miles, making trucking a local profession instead of a long-haul one.
It’s a change that’s desperately needed. For-hire trucking is in the midst of a staffing crisis, with a turnover rate of 97% — which means the trucks on the highway are probably being driven by someone who is driving their one and only trucking job before they quit. Currently there’s a shortfall of about 25,000 drivers, something that the American Trucking Association expects to get worse. Nor is it difficult to see why, as truckers work long hours at a dangerous job, can spend days away from their families, and might be the most unpopular people on the road short of that guy who plants himself in the middle lane and goes ten miles under the speed limit.
If Otto can bridge that gap, and do it with a product that prevents crashes and reduces fatigue, it might change everything from how your Christmas presents arrive to how food shows up on the shelves. Everything sounds pretty solid, in theory — now it’s time to see how Otto’s retrofits will do in practice.