Ex-Google brains are making self-driving semi trucks

Anthony Levandowski, one of Google’s elite, founder of the self-driving car department has joined forces with former leader of Google Maps and Alphabet employee, Lior Ron to form a startup called Ottomotto LLC which will be developing self-driving semi trucks. About 40 people in total, with 15 from Google only and including former employees of Apple, Tesla and Alphabet have come together to form the company “Otto” in the city of San Francisco.

Otto won’t be making their own self-driving trucks from scratch, but they will be making hardware kits that can be retrofitted onto existing commercial vehicles that were manufactured after 2013, to transform them into self-driving driver-less big rigs. These kits can be installed on the trucks at a service center or possibly at the vehicle production factory if manufacturer partnerships are made. Otto is currently testing the kits on Volvo VNL 780 trucks on the highways and plans to work with many Class 8 trucks, which are known as the biggest, meanest and the heaviest trucks found on American roads.

Big rigs or semi trailer trucks are really monstrous vehicles, capable of carrying huge amount of cargo loads. Some of these are multi axle trucks, with up to 18 wheels that carry up to 40,000 kilograms of load. This technology can make the business of long distance trucking safer as robots are less likely to cause errors, get angry or frustrated and do something crazy or stupid, that humans are more likely to do. Getting tired and fatigue won’t contribute to highway accidents as robots won’t feel worn out after seemingly endless hours of driving on highways.

We are focusing on the near-term potential for autonomous vehicles. It is easier for us to convince ourselves that our technology is better than humans on highways,” Levandowski said. However, he has not confirmed a timeline or price, but added that the self-driving hardware kit will cost a fraction of the actual truck’s cost. The system will work on the highways and keep the vehicle in the set speed and lane, slowing down or stopping only when required or commanded by the driver. The truck won’t be entirely driver-less, with a driver aboard it can be manned whenever suited and switched to automatic when on a highway. When driving through cities or when loading/unloading cargo, the trucks will be operated by human driver only and not the technology.

Otto isn’t the only company who is trying to automate big rigs and semi trailers trucks. Daimler and Volvo Trucks have both expressed their intentions to build self-driving systems and have even demonstrated some of them in the recent months. All this competition from some of the biggest names in automotive industry is bound to be a terrible headache, but not for Otto.

Company founder Anthony Levandowski commented in a relaxed manner,”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.”

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