UPDATE, Nov. 2—The long beer run performed by Otto’s self-driving truck while the human backup driver huddled in the sleeping berth was preceded, it turns out, by eight dry runs with the driver behind the wheel. Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, told truck.com that preparations for the final run took three months and hundreds of man-hours of work, adding that he thinks autonomous trucks won’t be a common sight for another 5 to 10 years.
An Otto self-driving truck has just hauled 51,744 cans of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colo., to Colorado Springs—a nearly 200-kilometer (120-mile) ride—without any human intervention,
“Once you’re on the Interstate, one switch and it’s driving itself down the road,” says backup driver Walter Martin, in this video clip supplied by Otto, which is based in San Francisco. For most of the trip, he monitored the self-driving system from a sleeper berth in the back.
Martin’s been driving long-haul trucks since 2007, but maybe his generation will be the last to do it all the way to retirement. The title of a post on this blog said it all back in May, when we reported on the company’s emergence from stealth mode: “Otto Self-Driving Truck Company Wants to Replace Teamsters.”
It’s not just that the supply of drivers is shortening and that their salaries are a significant part of the transit cost; shipping companies also have to worry about complying with stringent rules on how long a driver can work. You can’t always have an alternate driver ready to take over, in the way that fresh horses were sometimes provided at the regularly-spaced stages of the old stagecoach lines.
While in the back of the cabin, Martin had to remain clearheaded; after all, the retailer may just decide to count those cans. But when the day finally comes that software can handle all of the challenges of driving all of the time, maybe laws will allow anyone on board to drink freely. (Even now, that’s legal in one U.S. state—Mississippi—so long as the driver’s blood-alcohol level stays under 0.08 percent.)
In fact, the last Teamsters to haul Bud may well be the guys who hold the reins for the last team—the Clydesdales—that pull the old-timey wagon in Anheuser-Busch commercials. It’s easier to roboticize the umpteen wheels of a truck than the four legs of a horse.
The Clydesdales, of course, were not available for comment. But they would surely find this development very shocking.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.