Autonomous cars are all the rage, but they’re not the only vehicles being turned into self-driving wonders. That nice, cold Budweiser you’re sipping might have spent some time on the road in a self-driving tractor trailer.
Uber’s self-driving truck start-up Otto partnered with Anheuser-Busch to drive a semi loaded with beer through Colorado. The truck carried 2,000 cases of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. That’s 120 miles of roadway that included navigating through Denver and along a windy section of interstate through the mountains.
The driver wasn’t even behind the wheel for most of the trip. Instead, he left his seat to merely observe from the sleeper berth. That’s right. There was absolutely no one at the wheel of the 53-foot trailer as it cruised down the highway. You can only imagine how many people this freaked out when they saw no one at the wheel.
The technology is only in use on highways for now while a human driver is required to take the wheel in city traffic. It’s early in the program. In the future, Otto trucks could do the entire job themselves.
This was the first test, but it won’t be the last. Otto and Anheuser-Busch plan to have additional autonomous truck drives in the coming months. Otto initially saw this as a case study on meeting the needs of companies that ship products in tractor trailers. Now, their goal is to study how their trucks handle more challenging roads and weather.
Laws governing self-driving cars vary from state to state, but most require a human driver not just in the vehicle but at the wheel to take over in an instant should something go wrong. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently in the process of trying to devise a single policy that would apply to all vehicles regardless of the state.
The Department of Transportation worked with Otto in Colorado to make sure their technology was safe before they allowed their beer run. It took months for them to approve the drive without a driver at the wheel.
The idea of a self-driving truck is a little disconcerting. It’s hard enough to accept cars that do the job on their own, but a massive tractor trailer barreling down the highway without a human driver is even harder to reconcile.
The reality, however, is that they stand to be far safer and less expensive than human drivers. Long-haul trucking is a tiring job. Giving drivers the chance to take a break while the truck does the work means a well-rested driver who is less likely to make a mistake. If you see an Otto truck with no one behind the wheel, don’t panic. The truck has it all under control.