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Otto, a start-up by ex-Googlers to make trucks driverless, has launched

A group of former senior Google employees has launched a start-up aimed at making existing trucks on the road driverless.

While companies from Google to Tesla are talking about driverless cars, Otto, which came out of stealth mode on Tuesday, aims to bring disruption to the long-haul trucking industry.

The four co-founders all worked at Google before this project. Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding team, was a key part of Google's own autonomous driving project.

While self-driving trucks might not be as glamorous as cars, Otto sees the technology as being able to improve a key industry.


Why driverless trucks?

It may seem novel, but driverless trucks could solve some major issues on the roads.

U.S. interstate highways carry 4.3 million trucks which are responsible for the transportation of goods. On any given day, trucks move 70 percent of all cargo in the U.S. or 14 billion tons of freight annually, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.


On top of this, trucks pose safety issues to drivers on the road. While trucks drive just 5.6 percent of all U.S. miles, they're the cause of 9.5 percent of all driving fatalities, data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows.

And the American Trucking Association has voiced concerns over a growing driver shortage.

This is what Otto hopes to improve.


Driverless kit

The U.S. start-up – which has ex-Google, Apple and Tesla employees working for it – has developed a kit that can equip existing trucks on the road.

"We are developing a suite of sensors, software and truck enhancements coming together in a product that can be quickly outfitted on existing trucks," Otto co-founders Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

Otto said that it's testing the technology on highways and it recently completed an autonomous demo on a public highway.

"We intend to enhance the capabilities of the Otto truck, collect safety data to demonstrate its benefits, and bring this technology to every corner of the U.S. highway system," the blog post added.


An Otto truck on the highway
Otto
An Otto truck on the highway

Autonomous trucks could allow drivers to take naps and rest during legs of the journey. This could reduce journey times as trucks would not need to stop.

Still, Otto will have to work with regulators turn its vision into reality. At present, there is no national legislation for driverless vehicles, though some U.S. states have their own rules. And regulators across Europe are working at different paces on new laws.

Driverless trucks have also garnered attention from major auto makers. Last year, Daimler, the owner of Mercedes, tested a self-driving truck on a public road in Germany and in April, a fleet of trucks from various manufacturers including Volvo completed a week of autonomous driving across Europe.