In the arms race to build self-driving vehicles, Uber-owned Otto just reached a landmark milestone by completing the first-ever commercial cargo run for a self-driving truck.
On October 20, the self-driving truck left Fort Collins, Colorado at 1 a.m. and drove itself 120 miles on I-25 to Colorado Springs. The driver, who has to be there to help the truck get on and off the interstate exit ramps, moved to the backseat alongside a crowd of transportation officials to watch the historic ride.
2,000 cases of Budweiser beer filled the trailer.
“We’re just thrilled. We do think this is the future of transportation,” James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch, told Business Insider.
The beverage company, which outsources all of its beer delivery, paid Otto to deliver the cases of Budweiser to pilot the technology’s commercial uses. German automaker Daimler has also tested its self-driving trucks across Europe and in limited cases in Nevada, but hasn’t accepted commercial trucking loads yet.
Otto’s beer delivery run is just the beginning of what the company plans to accomplish.
‘This is real’
While other self-driving technology manufacturers who are building new vehicles, Otto is designing a system that could be retrofitted on to existing trucks. Sembrot reached out to Otto after reading about the team in the news this spring. Six months later, it’s already transporting its Budweiser beer.
To Anheuser-Busch, Otto’s ability to integrate with more than just one truck meant it could save both money and the environment by working with operators who use Otto’s self-driving technology, Sembrot said.
“This was the first load. We are excited to not only do business with Otto going forward, but as Lior [Ron] scales the technology,” Sembrot said.
Transporting the first load, though, wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch.
To prepare for the beer run, Otto sent some of its trucks and team to Colorado to start mapping the roads for the truck a few weeks ago. Eventually, Otto started adding dummy trailers, eventually filling them with dummy beer to understand how the truck would react when it was fully loaded. The company spent weeks studying the traffic patterns and landscape before deciding that 1 a.m. was the best time to run the shipment.
Ron acknowledges that Otto still has a long way to go in making it more efficient — after all, each commercial load can’t take weeks to prepare. In the early days of self-driving trucks, though, each trip will not only help in mapping out the interstates for Otto’s kits, but also make the other drivers on the interstate more familiar with driving alongside a truck with no one in the driver’s seat. As the Otto test shows, the technology is here and already being put to commercial use.
“This is real,” Ron said.
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