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Self-Driving Cars Inch Closer as Uber Autonomous Semi Makes First Delivery

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author photo by Russ Heaps November 2016

Reaffirming that self-driving cars are somewhere in our future, the first load of commercial cargo to be delivered by a self-driving vehicle made the 120-mile jog from Loveland, Colorado to Colorado Springs, mostly without human input.

Reported by WIRED, a semi hauling 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer negotiated all of the 120-or-so Interstate miles between the Loveland's Anheuser-Busch facility and its Colorado Springs destination while the driver hung out in the cab's sleeping berth. This was a first for a commercial load and a giant step forward for autonomous vehicles.

Bearing logos for both Budweiser and Otto, the self-driving-truck startup recently acquired by Uber, the 18-wheeler pulled away from the Loveland loading dock bound for Colorado Springs and its footnote in history.

The Trip

In late October, according to WIRED, Otto driver Walt Martin fulfilled all the responsibilities of any long-haul driver as he piloted his truck through the streets of Loveland between his pickup point and Interstate 25, the main corridor running north and south through the heart of Colorado. The stretch of I-25 between Loveland and Colorado Springs threads its way through Denver's core.

Merging onto the Interstate, Martin engaged the autonomous system -- with its $30,000 worth of self-driving technology -- left the driver's seat and crawled into the sleeping berth. He didn't reacquire control until the semi neared the appropriate off-ramp in Colorado Springs.

The Technology

At this point, Otto's autonomous technology (AT) can reliably handle open-highway driving, absent of pedestrians, bicycles and 4-way stop signs. In this environment, it's fully capable of handling all aspects of controlling the vehicle, including monitoring surrounding traffic and reacting to any changes in traffic flow.

All of this semi's AT is aftermarket bolt-on hardware and supporting software. Three laser radar units are arranged around the cab and trailer, a radar sensor is attached to the front bumper and a camera points out the windshield. Inside, an engineer monitors a series of computers.

As the technology continues to evolve, human truck drivers will fill the role of shipping's harbor pilots, who come aboard ships to bring them the final few miles into port.

What Is Otto?

Based in San Francisco, Otto burst onto the self-driving scene in January of this year. Its mission: Bring high-tech solutions to the problems plaguing the long-haul trucking industry. Although the ultimate result of its efforts may well be fully autonomous semis, its present goal is to create technologies that assist drivers and deliver improved safety.

Uber ponied up $680 million for Otto in late summer. With more than a passing interest in self-driving cars, Uber probably sees in Otto an opportunity to not only further its autonomous-car aspirations, but also to streamline the trucking industry with some sort of on-demand load hauling.

What It Means to You: Any number of benefits could come from autonomous 18-wheelers, including safer, better-flowing highways. Moreover, the increased efficiency of autonomous trucks will lower shipping costs, saving all of us some money on just about everything we purchase. Finally, any step forward in autonomous technology will make self-driving cars a reality all that much sooner.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Self-Driving Cars Inch Closer as Uber Autonomous Semi Makes First Delivery - Autotrader