SAN FRANCISCO — If you’re sipping a Budweiser somewhere in Colorado Springs, you just might have a robot to thank for that thirst-quenching brew.
Last week, self-driving truck start-up Otto teamed with Anheuser-Busch to successfully deliver a semi-tractor full of beer from Fort Collins, through Denver and on to the southern Colorado city in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
For the majority of that 120-mile trip, the truck’s driver left his seat and observed the road from the comfort of the sleeper berth. An Otto video of the drive shows the slightly disconcerting image of a massive 53-foot trailer filled with 2,000 cases of Bud rumbling down I-25 with no human in the cab.
Otto’s tech is at present confined to highways, and humans take over in city traffic. Otto and Anheuser-Busch, which announced the news Tuesday, plan additional real-world autonomous truck drives in the months ahead.
“The initial appeal for us was to see how we could meet the needs of a company like Anheuser-Busch,” Otto co-founder Lior Ron tells USA TODAY. “But now after this successful test, we’re eager to see how it will handle other roads and other weather.”
The Otto landmark stands in stark contrast to the ongoing self-driving car tests by Google, Uber and Ford in California, Arizona and other states that require a safety driver to remain at the wheel in case of emergencies.
At present, states offer self-driving tech companies a patchwork of laws that, in time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is hoping to corral into a cohesive autonomous car policy.
In Colorado, the Department of Transportation worked with Otto for a number of months evaluating the company’s technology and joining on test runs before agreeing to let an Otto semi roll along without a driver in the cab.
“Safety remained our primary concern, but we believe that in this case the driver is the automated system itself,” says Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the Colorado DOT, whose RoadX mission is to partner with innovative companies to help insure that the state leads the way in the coming transportation revolution. “We’d like to help get this tech deployed in the real world.”
Otto, which was founded early this year by Google Car veterans Ron and Anthony Levandowski, was bought by Uber last August for $670 million. Uber is boosting its self-driving tech initiative with Levandowski now in charge of leading the ride-hailing giant’s charge.
The concept behind Otto is to produce an aftermarket kit comprised of radar and camera sensors that, when harnessed to proprietary software, will allow the nation’s 350,000 owner-operator truckers to keep their trucks on the road longer without cutting into their carefully monitored driving time.
Otto’s — and Uber’s — interest in cornering the trucking market doesn’t need much explanation. In 2015, trucking brought in $726 billion in revenue and accounted for 81% of all freight transport, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Trucking industry advocates remain concerned about both the technology’s ability to decipher every road emergency and the danger of having a driver resting or even sleeping while a truck is at highway speeds.
For Anheuser-Busch Inbev, a global spirits juggernaut valued at $213 billion, the appeal of the partnership was to “see if we could help pioneer technology that will make the jobs of those shipping product easier and safer,” says James Sembrot, senior director of logistics and safety for Anheuser-Busch.
Sembrot says the company’s beer travels an estimated 450 million miles a year to its various destinations. Anheuser-Busch doesn’t own any trucks, but rather contracts with 300 trucking companies nationwide.
“We liked the prospect of those folks traveling safer in trucks that help improve environmental impact (through increased gas mileage),” he says. “There’s no question in our mind that transportation companies will want to make these improvements.”