May 18, 2016

Billion dollar startup Otto developing $30,000 self driving kit to retrofit freight trucks

Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup the he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay.

Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of U.S. highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks.

"Our goal is to make trucks drive as humanly as possible, but with the reliability of machines," Levandowski says.

Otto is looking for 1,000 truckers to volunteer to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs, at no cost, to help fine-tune the technology. The volunteer truckers would still be expected to seize the wheel and take control of the truck if the technology fails or the driving conditions make it unsafe to remain in autonomous mode, mirroring the laws governing tests of self-driving cars on public streets and highways.

Otto hasn't set a timetable for completing its tests, but hopes to eventually retrofit all the U.S. trucks on the road. That would encompass more than 4.7 million trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Otto is developing a $30,000 kit that can make any truck built since 2013 autonomous. Otto, which comes out of hiding today, is led by Anthony Levandowski, who worked at Google on Streetview and mapping, and Lior Ron, who was the Google Maps Product Lead. They’re moving fast—the company launched in January and has about 40 employees nicked from Apple, Tesla, and Cruise, the autonomous startup GM recently bought for $1 billion.

Autonomous trucks aren’t as sexy as driverless cars, but they could have a bigger impact on our lives. Within years, they could make the roads safer, the air cleaner, and deliveries cheaper.

According to a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration analysis, the driver was the key factor in 87 percent of big-rig crashes, poor decisions caused more than a third

Otto’s “pack” includes extra cameras, radar, and LIDaR sensors, a common combination for advanced autonomous vehicles. To control the vehicle, Otto adds power steering and redundant braking systems. A custom computer is the brains of the operation, making real-time driving decisions. “What unlocks the capability of moving with no driver in the driver’s seat is the quality of the algorithms,” says Levandowski.

Otto’s kit also uses detailed mapping data

All of this is closer than you think. Last year, Daimler unveiled the world’s first autonomous semi. Volvo is working with Europe’s Project Sartre to develop road trains where a caravan of robo-trucks follows a leader.

The effort makes sense when you consider that trucks carry around 70 percent of the freight that transported across the US, and demand is growing. But shiny new trucks like the Daimler’s autonomous Freightliner will a long time to penetrate the market. Daimler says that won’t start happening until about 2025, meaning the 3.46 million big-rigs already on US roads aren’t getting any smarter anytime soon.

SOURCES- NBC News, Wired, Youtube

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