Picture an 18-wheel truck barreling down the highway with 80,000 pounds of cargo and no one but a robot at the wheel. To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google's driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington, and Arizona. But Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google's self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system. Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup that he co-founded with two other former Google employees and another robotics expert, the AP reports.
Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers, and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of US highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks. For now, the robot truckers would only take control on the highways, leaving humans to handle the tougher task of wending through city streets. The idea is similar to the automated pilots that fly jets at high altitudes while leaving the takeoffs and landings to humans. The company completed its first extended test of its big-rig system on public highways in Nevada last weekend, and it's now looking for 1,000 truckers to volunteer to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs, at no cost, to help fine-tune the technology. (Safety advocates want the government to put the brakes on approval of self-driving cars.)