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Ex-Googlers look to put tractor-trailers on autopilot with self-driving tech

While self-driving technology has focused largely on the everyday driver, a startup called Otto has its sights set on self-driving tractor-trailers.

“It’s really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Otto, told the Associated Press.

The company is intent on bringing safe self-driving technology to big-rig trucking. And Levandowski has the necessary expertise to back his ambitions — he was the former technical lead in Google’s autonomous car division. He has teamed up with Lior Ron, former product lead of Google Maps, and the two are making headway testing, equipping, and converting long-haul trucks to drive themselves on highways.

The first stage would be to set up trucks to do the highway driving. A human driver would be on board at all times, so you can’t really call it completely driverless, but while rolling down the freeways, the person on board won’t be in charge — or maybe even awake. Off the highways, however, the individual would take over for pickups, deliveries, and navigating city streets. Think of a commercial aircraft where the pilot and crew pull back from the gate and off the ground and later land the plane and guide it to the next gate — during the actual flight from point to point, an autopilot does the flying.

The plan is to set up trucks with cameras, lasers, sensors, and the right software to make it all work. Three rigs are already set up for road testing in Nevada. Why Nevada? California’s laws are OK with auto-driving cars, but not big trucks.

The next stage is finding 1,000 truckers willing to volunteer their trucks for a free conversion for more testing. The drivers won’t be able to nap on the road at this stage in development, however. They’d still need to be in the driver’s seat, ready to take over if something goes wrong.

The prospect of an 18-wheeler driving itself at highway speeds gives some pause, but Levandowski says the fears are unfounded. The trucks on autopilot won’t speed or violate traffic laws and they won’t get tired. Driver fatigue is a common major or contributing cause of truck accidents and autonomous trucks are aimed at addressing that problem. There’s currently a shortage of truck drivers that is expected to grow in the years ahead. But freight has to be hauled, and trucks do the hauling.

Otto’s former Google tech leaders have already assembled a crew of other people highly experienced in autonomous car technology from Google, Apple, and Tesla, with all working to fine-tune the technology. Levandowski’s plan is to equip the country’s fleet of over-the-road trucks with autopilot technology.

“Our goal is to make trucks drive as humanly as possible, but with the reliability of machines,” Levandowski said.