Trucking is big business, employing 3.5 million drivers, travelling 433 billion miles and delivering 70 percent of all freight transported in the states. Much of that driving is on the Interstate Highway System, where the trips can be very long and boring. It is tedious work and doesn’t pay all that well (the average wage being $ 32,000 per annum) so there is a serious shortage of drivers. It can be dangerous; according to Alex Davies in Wired, 400,000 trucks are involved in crashes each year, killing about 4,000 people.
That’s where Otto comes in. The Uber-owned company developed hardware and software that makes trucks totally autonomous on the highway, adding 3 LIDAR laser systems, RADARs and cameras. The system is designed for the open road; On the Otto site they explain:
Alex quotes Otto’s co-founder Lior Ron on how it will change the trucking industry:
Our self-driving trucks make highways safer. Otto hardware and software is tuned for the consistent patterns and easy to predict road conditions of highway driving. Sensors are installed high atop existing trucks, offering vehicles an unobstructed view of the road ahead. With highways making up only 5% of U.S. roads, we can focus our testing on this specific set of trucking routes critical for the American economy.
Ron says he can make trucking a local profession. “You can imagine a future where those trucks are essentially a virtual train on a software rail, on the highway,” he says. He sees a day when trucks do their thing on the interstate, then stop at designated depots where humans drive the last few miles into town. Drivers, in effect, become harbor pilots, bringing the ship to port.
It makes sense that the first public test of Otto was a beer run; the interstate highway system let brewers centralize their facilities and eliminate local brewers, with a little help from the beer can. According to the New York Times, Anheuser-Busch delivers more than a million truckloads of beer each year. This trip, carrying 2,000 cases of Bud 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, may have been the first commercial run but it is the shape of things to come; the cost of the equipment is about one year’s pay for one driver, a fraction of the value of the truck. No doubt it will be safer and more efficient; as Otto notes on their blog,
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.
This is all probably true. But eventually the driver won’t be resting, he will be out of work, since they will be operating like harbour pilots in port and there will be a lot fewer of them. When you look at these maps showing the most common jobs in each state, you see that truck driving has become the most common job in the vast majority of states. As NPR noted in a post last year, manufacturing jobs disappeared, fewer and fewer farmers were needed, secretarial jobs vanished, and there wasn't much left.
Driving a truck has been immune to two of the biggest trends affecting U.S. jobs: globalization and automation. A worker in China can't drive a truck in Ohio, and machines can't drive cars (yet).
Well, now they can, and the impact is going to be huge. And whether or not you think self-driving cars are going to be taking over the roads soon (I don’t;) I suspect that self-driving trucks travelling the Interstates are closer than we think.