Earlier Tuesday, Uber announced the first successful run of one of its self-driving freight trucks, developed by San Francisco-based company Otto. It’s the latest stage in a meteoric 2016 for the self-driving startup.
The truck, designed by Otto, successfully completed a 120-mile journey between Fort Collins, Colorado and Colorado Springs, Colorado, delivering 2,000 cases of Budweiser beers with nary an issue along its journey on Interstate 25.
It’s an important step for Uber’s effort to get self-driving cars on the road, coming on the heels of a pilot project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that allows selected users to hail rides from self-driving cars.
So what’s the deal with Otto, the company acquired by Uber in August, driving (pun intended) this push of self-driving technology?
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Otto on first glance is the background of its founding staff. The company boasts employees who previously worked with Google, Apple, Cruise and Tesla (Google and Tesla also have their own self-driving car programs).
And that pedigree starts at the top. One co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, had already had success with self-driving vehicles (the famous Ghostrider motorcycle) when he joined Google in 2007 to work on Google Maps and the tech giant eventually acquired his two companies, Anthonys Robots and 510 Systems.
Lior Ron, another co-founder, is also a Google alum, having worked on Google Maps and helming strategy for Motorola after Google acquired them in 2012. Clair Deluanay also worked for Google and has an extensive background in robotics.
Since it’s launch, Otto has grown to employ more than 90 people and the company continues to hire top talent.
From the get-go, Otto’s goal was self-driving trucks. In a Medium post introducing the company in May 2016, Levandowski and Ron wrote:
To speed the adoption of self-driving technology, we began by equipping existing trucks on the road with our unique self-driving kit, designed to empower truck drivers to drive more safely and efficiently. We are developing a suite of sensors, software and truck enhancements coming together in a product that can be quickly outfitted on existing trucks.
The pair stressed both the amount of freight that trucks are responsible for (“70 percent of all cargo in the U.S. thats 14 billion tons per year”) and safety, noting truck accidents were responsible for a disproportionate amount of traffic deaths versus the percentage of miles driven by trucks.
There are also cost savings. When it launched, Otto estimated that the price of its autonomous drive system would be a “small fraction” of the $100,000 to $200,000 price tag of a brand-new semi truck.
The trucks can drive autonomously on the highway, but still need a person behind the wheel to monitor the operation and drive the truck on streets.
In their post about the partnership on, yes, Medium, the Otto team sold the acquisition as a win-win for the industry, allowing for better safety without truckers losing business:
By combining these two technologies, we can create a freight network that is constantly learning and improving. Each truck that joins the network can provide valuable information that makes all other trucks safer and more efficient. In turn, drivers get paid more and shippers get a more reliable service. Self-driving trucks together with a marketplace create a virtuous cycle where everyone benefits.
In Uber’s release on the deal, CEO Travis Kalanick called the pairing a “dream team” and said Levandowski would head the company’s combined self-driving efforts.
For Uber, the deal followed a $300 million partnership with Volvo that will bring autonomous technology to the XC90 sports utility vehicle, the cars that Uber has used in its self-driving pilot program in Pittsburgh.
The Next Chapter?
Tuesday’s announcement that the Otto-Uber collaboration resulted in a successful beer run was a huge step for the project, especially given the distance and complete lack of human interaction with the car.
According to Otto, sensors, cameras and radar positioned all around the vehicle allow it to “see” the road. These components also assist in the system’s acceleration, steering, and breaking. The company said that the professional driver on board was able to monitor the entire highway portion of the journey from the truck’s sleeper berth, in the rear of the cab.
While details of the partnership with Amheuser-Busch aren’t yet known (will the famous Clydesdales be out of work now?), Otto indicates that there will be future endeavors between the two companies and Uber Freight is live on the web, with an appropriate tagline: “We’re in it for the long haul.”