Otto's Motto: Rethinking the Future of Transportation

You know this part: straight stretch of road, sun obstinately dipping below the visor every time you lower it, current mile of bland hills indiscernible from the previous mile of bland hills.

Maybe you drink a lot of coffee. Maybe you blast the music. You're not sleepy, but you've been staring at the same white lines for hours and the steady flit of the guardrail posts is hypnotic.

You think about pulling over to stretch, but you're down to the last hundred kilometres and you don't want to be late for that conference/game/wedding you could have flown to but you don't really like flying and hey, Chicago's only eleven hours away and anyway it'll be fun.

Gruelling road trips – they're just a normal day in the life of a long-haul truck driver.

Both of my parents ran long-haul for years. It's a thankless job, in a competitive industry where winning contracts means promising fast delivery, and fast delivery means pushing the drivers, and pushing the drivers means they are not stopping until they are out of hours they can legally drive – and sometimes not even then.

Enter Otto, a startup founded by former Google engineers (including Anthony Levandowski, who built their first self-driving car). Stacked with ringers from other companies in the driverless game such as Apple and Tesla, Otto appeared out of thin air a few days ago with a roadworthy autonomous transport truck system – not a vehicle, but technology meant to upgrade existing trucks.

Autonomous commercial trucks are not new. In Western Australia, mining giant Rio Tinto's fleet of entirely driverless trucks have been working commercially since October last year. And in May, 2015, in a ceremony atop the Hoover Dam, Daimler unveiled its Freightliner Inspiration, which features a 'highway pilot' that is licensed for testing on public highways in Nevada.

But Rio Tinto's trucks operate on private property, and while Daimler's Inspiration can pull off some advanced autonomous moves like changing speed, staying in its lane and avoiding collisions, they are very clear it still requires a driver behind the wheel. Otto, unsurprisingly considering its pedigree, has set its sights higher.

Like Daimler, Otto initially focused on driver-assist technology, but that ballooned into a full-blown autonomous system that can take over the highway portions of the drive, whether there is a driver in the vehicle or not. They aim to eventually allow truckers to sleep safely in the bunk while the truck keeps rolling, allowing the driver to take over, refreshed, once off the highway.

Both Otto and Daimler hope to improve road safety with their systems. Driver-assist features like lane guidance that are conveniences in cars could be life savers in trucks, which usually take up every inch of their lane and have many more – and larger – blind spots.

As with cars, most accidents involving commercial vehicles are due to driver error, whether on the part of the trucker or the driver of the car who didn't read the 'makes wide turns' sign on the back of every trailer. Fatigue, distraction, speed... all are common collision factors a self-driving system could mitigate.

The one thing they can't really help with is weather.

"I think this is black ice," my mother said to the drivers she was following up a hill in a snowstorm outside of Elk Mountain, Wyoming. It was her first year of driving. "I'm going to pull over."

"Don't worry, it's just snow," they told her. Then another driver felt it too. They pulled over and watched the truck in the lead almost slide into the median.

Accidents involving commercial trucks have a high fatality rate. As a national trend, fatalities involving motor vehicles have declined, albeit unevenly, for the last 20 years, but in Ontario at least, truck-related deaths are on the rise. In fact trucks are second only to drunk driving as a factor in fatal accidents. This makes perfect sense; trucks are much larger than the passenger vehicles with which they share the road. They are heavy, and carry heavy loads which add to the force of an impact, and are sometimes hazards in their own right.

It's a dangerous profession, and increasing demands and worsening conditions are taking a toll on drivers.

I asked my mother, who is now retired, what she thought of Otto.

"Cool," she said, "but you'd need a driver for city traffic. Cars are too unpredictable."

"Would you sleep in one? While it was moving?"

"Nope. No way. I wouldn't be able to sleep."

Otto clearly has the technical chops to propel the transportation industry into the future. Winning over the drivers might be the real challenge.

Does sharing the road with Google's self-driving car make you nervous? How about a driverless transport truck? 5/25/2016 8:00:22 AM