Otto Kits Out Big Rigs With Aftermarket Self-Driving Tech

Otto on Monday introduced a self-driving kit designed to help those behind the wheel of big rigs drive more safely and efficiently.

The company is developing a suite of sensors, software and other truck-related enhancements that could be retrofitted into existing vehicles.

The technology has been tested in Otto’s research fleet, and the company recently completed an autonomous demo of its technology on public highways.

The initiative aims to enhance the capabilities of the Otto truck as well as collect safety data to demonstrate the potential benefits the technology could bring to the trucking industry and how it could make roads safer for everyone.

Otto has been testing three Volvo VNL 780 trucks that were outfitted with its semiautonomous and driver-assist technology.

The company was founded by Anthony Levandowski, who previously worked on Google’s autonomous vehicle program; Lior Ron, the former project lead for Google Maps; Don Burnette; and Claire Delaunay. Its team of 40 includes other former Google employees as well as staffers who have had experience at Tesla, HERE, Apple and Cruise.

Great Big Convoy

Otto aims to address some of the problems that plague the trucking industry, including safety and pollution issues.

Some 4.3 million commercial trucks utilize the 222,000-mile U.S. interstate highway system to move 70 percent of all cargo in the United States. While trucks drive just 5.6 percent of all the miles in the United States, they are responsible for almost 9.5 percent of all driving fatalities, Otto’s founders noted. Eight people die each day because of an accident involving a truck.

Moreover, while large trucks make up just 1 percent of vehicles on the road, they account for 28 percent of road-based pollution. Adding to the problem is the fact that one in seven trucks is driving empty after delivering its cargo, according to Otto.

TheAmerican Trucking Associations in 2015 reported a shortage of some 50,000 drivers, and it expected the shortage to grow to nearly 150,000 by 2020.

Aftermarket Focus

Otto’s biggest advantage is that it isn’t trying to create a self-driving vehicle.

“Otto’s path is smart as it focuses on the huge aftermarkets and at least initially on supporting the driver rather than replacing him,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

“This allows companies that are interested in the technology to safely try the technology rather than go in with both feet,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It has relatively little competition as other companies have focused on the automobile market,” said Entner.

“Targeting the aftermarket could potentially provide a large install base,” noted Wallace Lau, mobility team lead at Frost & Sullivan.

That “could potentially boost the initial adoption rate of autonomous-enabled trucks if return on investment is quick and benefits proven,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Otto will not be directly competing with the truck OEMs, which will provide consumers more options.”

Long Road Ahead

Even as an aftermarket product, Otto could hit some roadblocks.

“The biggest inhibitor for this concept is insurance coverage,” said Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Each installer must be educated, tested and certified; each install must be inspected and approved; and Otto needs to indemnify certified installs against lawsuits related to system capabilities, systems integration and distributors’ installations,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Each of these steps involves substantial funding — before, during and after the system is installed in a vehicle,” Teich added.

Truck and fleet owners may not be so willing to invest in the technology, especially from a startup whose founders have more tech company experience than automotive.

“Not being partnered or affiliated with any trucking industry participants could pose a major hurdle to entry and acceptance in a tough industry,” noted Lau.

“Price points will have to be lower than OEM-developed trucks, and service and support nationwide will be essential in the early stages of product introduction,” Lau added. “OEMs such as Daimler have already developed and demoed their own proprietary Level 3-enabled autonomous truck. Moreover, most major OEMs globally have autonomous technology plans for their future trucks.”

Safety Concerns

Safety is a major concern. “The biggest con going to the truck market first is that if something goes wrong, it goes massively wrong, with more than 40 tons poorly interacting with other drivers,” said Entner.

“If something goes wrong with a self-driving car, it can still turn into a 2-ton projectile, but that’s nothing compared to a 40-ton truck,” he added.

Otto will thus have to “pass safety regulations while proving to skeptical consumers that autonomous driving is the future of trucking that can revolutionize the industry from a productivity and safety angle,” noted Frost & Sullivan’s Lau.

“Level 3 autonomous-enabled trucks are not expected to be available before the 2025 period as regulations, safety and testing are still in the early stages,” he added. “We expect the penetration of these Level 3 autonomous-enabled trucks to be slow in its early stages.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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