UPDATED 14:40 EST / OCTOBER 25 2016


Cheers! Uber’s self-driving truck delivers 50,000+ cans of beer

It has been less than three months since Uber Technologies Inc. paid over $680 million to purchase Otto GmbH, a startup founded by former Google employees that is dedicated to bringing autonomous vehicle technology to commercial tractor trailers. Now, Otto has announced that one of its self-driving trucks has just made its first successful delivery, and the company chose an important staple for its first cargo: beer.

More specifically, Otto’s self-driving truck transported a load of 51,744 cans of Budweiser beer from an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Loveland, Colo., all the way to Colorado Springs, over 120 miles away. According to Otto, the driver who rode along for the delivery never even sat in the driver’s seat and instead monitored the trip from the sleeper cab in the back.

“This shipment is the next step towards our vision for a safe and productive future across our highways,” the Otto team said in a blog post. “With an Otto-equipped vehicle, truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them. When you’ll see a truck driving down the road with nobody in the front seat, you’ll know that it’s highly unlikely to get into a collision, drive aggressively, or waste a single drop of fuel.”

Rather than building self-driving trucks from scratch, Otto instead designs systems that can be installed on existing vehicles, greatly reducing the cost required for companies to convert to autonomous vehicles.

You can watch a video of Otto’s self-driving tractor trailer below:

Self-driving trucks: an entirely different challenge

While a lot of the buzz surrounding autonomous vehicle technology has focused on self-driving car initiatives from companies like Tesla and Ford, applying that same technology to commercial trucks could have an equally disruptive effect on our highway infrastructure and on numerous industries. After all, every product you see on a store shelf was at some point delivered from one place to another on a truck, and the cost of transporting goods is one of the most expensive components in the consumer economy. Self-driving trucks could dramatically lower that cost by reducing the number of drivers needed while also eliminating the need to stop during long trips.

Autonomous trucks do face a few challenges that cars do not. For example, strong winds may be a nuisance to car drivers, but for trucks, they can be extremely dangerous. And since the gross weight of a commercial truck, including cargo and fuel, could vary by tens of thousands of pounds, the vehicle’s artificial intelligence would need to be able to adjust for these factors on the fly.

Regulation for commercial trucks is also very different than for cars. Roads may be slightly different from state to state, but for the most part, driving a car across the country about the same as driving to the next town over. For trucks, however, laws can vary drastically from state to state, especially when it comes to particularly large or heavy loads, which often require a separate permit for each state through which they travel. Some states, such as Michigan, also have seasonal restrictions on commercial trucks, and allowed routes could change from day to day.

This likely explains why Otto is currently focusing on trucks with standard size and weight, and why the technology is being marketed as an assistant to drivers, not a full replacement.

Image courtesy of Otto

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