Autonomous Truck Makes First Commercial Delivery

Oct 26, 2016

uber-makes-first-autonomous-beer-run-with-self-driving-delivery-truckThe path toward a “driverless truck” is full of firsts many of which have yet to take place. But this week the movement cleared one of its most significant hurdles to date – actually making an autonomous delivery. If you’re in Colorado Springs, you might buy a can of beer that was shipped by a self-driving truck.

Otto, the self-driving truck company acquired by Uber, announced Tuesday, October 25, that one of its heavy-duty self-driving trucks completed a 120-mile delivery for Anheuser-Busch InBev. The Class 8 tractor and its trailer loaded with 51,744 cans of beer, traveled on Interstate 25 from Fort Collins through downtown Denver to Colorado Springs. There was a driver tucked in the sleeper berth who monitored the two-hour voyage.

The truck, a Volvo VNL, used cameras, radar, and LIDAR sensors to see the road. Otto’s system controlled the trucks acceleration, braking and steering to carry the beer exit to exit with no human intervention. Otto co-founder Lior Ron says the truck’s driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120 mile trek down interstate 25 and monitored the system from the sleeper. All the driver had to do was drive the truck onto the interstate and take over as it left the interstate to its final destination at the distributor about two hours later.

“This shipment is the next step towards our vision for a safe and productive future across our highways,” Otto executives wrote 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.”

Despite having less than 200 miles and only one delivery of feedback, James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy for Anheuser-Busch, says he was thrilled with the results and says he’s confident Otto’s autonomous retrofit will improve safety, will be sustainable and will increase operating efficiency. “We really see that as the model of the future,” he says. “The driver is still there, he’s just safer with those very long hours on the road and he can be more productive because you could [potentially] drive around the clock.” Hours of Service obstacles remain, as does the fact that Level 4 autonomy, the level at which once the system is enabled, driver attention is not required – is still not legal in most states, including Colorado.

In case you’re wondering, the historical significance of this week’s beer run didn’t come with a price premium. Sembrot says Anheuser-Busch paid “the market rate average of what we normally pay on that lane.” Autonomy’s impact on rates won’t be seen for quite some time but Ron says, rates aside, platforms like Otto’s create an environment where everyone can make more money.

“There is a very clear commercial value with the investment because you can drive more hours on the truck and be more cost effective with the assets on the truck because the truck behaves more predictably,” he says. “We think this creates a win-win for both shipper, the carrier and the driver. We are creating a bigger pie.”

“Carriers pass on to shippers the cost of fuel via a fuel surcharge,” Sembrot adds. “We know this technology is going to improve fuel consumption … and we expect to realize a benefit of reduced cost of fuel.”

“As a shipper, we are convinced this is the future,” he adds.

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