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Self-driving truck makes short hops for brewery

Various companies are racing to perfect self-driving car technology, but getting yourself from point A to point B is only the start. There are also a lot of goods that need transportation, and moving them is big business. A startup called Otto announced a few months ago that it was working on a kit that could turn a semi truck into a self-driving vehicle, and it’s just completed its first real-world test with the help of Anheuser-Busch. The truck went a total distance of 120 miles for the first fully autonomous beer run.

Otto, which was recently acquired by Uber, has been testing its autonomous driving tech with three specially outfitted Volvo VNL 780 trucks in California for several months. The new beer truck test applied all that technology to a real shipment on roads with other cars driven by unpredictable humans. As required by current law, there was a human driver in the cab, but according to Otto, he wasn’t actually sitting at the wheel. That seems to indicate a lot of confidence in the system.

Otto uses an array of sensors like lidar, radar, and standard cameras to provide the computer with what it needs to maneuver through traffic. With a self-driving car, there’s only so much damage it can do if something goes wrong. A semi hauling multiple tons in the trailer can cause serious mayhem on the road. The Otto-powered trip from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs went off without a hitch, though. The truck drove all 120 miles on its own without human intervention. Note, those are highway miles. In urban settings at the beginning and end of the trip, the human driver took the wheel. Otto’s system is designed to reduce the strain of long stretches on the highway, which is often when humans get tired or distracted on the road.

Anheuser-Busch was happy with the way the test played out, and even created a set of special beer cans to commemorate the trip. “First Delivery by Self-Driving Truck,” they read. The company says it hopes Otto’s technology could one day be integrated into more trucks, which would allow it to save all kinds of money. That’s not necessarily good news for all the people who make a living as long-haul truckers. Driving trucks is one of the most common occupations in many areas of the country, and it’s ripe for takeover by robots.

Otto hasn’t provided all the details on what it will cost to convert the nation’s fleet of semi trucks to autonomous vehicles, but it says the total will be “a fraction” of the MSRP for a truck. These vehicles often cost upward of $100,000, so that could still mean thousands of dollars. Although, it could save a lot of time, money, and even lives.

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