Do not get startled if you happen to spot a self- driving vehicle roaming around as they have actually made an entry into the real world, sooner than one thought. Uber, the world's largest ride-sharing company, decided to take the giant leap by acquiring Otto, a 90-person start-up including former Google and Carnegie Mellon engineers that is focused on developing self-driving truck technology to upend the freight sector.
While Uber's aggressive expansion around the world has been received by many with a sense of doubt, its latest move underlines its willingness to experiment. In a deal worth an estimated $680 million, the San Francisco-based Otto has become an independent division within Uber, working on the concept. The idea is to replace the dual-trucker system by one trucker and a computer.
Otto is experimenting on a fleet of six modified white Volvo truck cabs, equipped with radar, cameras and lidar-which maps in 3-D using lasers. Although Uber is also working on autonomous cars to carry passengers, but experts believe speeding into the market of commercial trucking world is less challenging as there are fewer problems to solve compared to passenger vehicles and thus wider chances of acceptability.
The Otto team is currently trying to equip the trucks to drive themselves solely from exit to exit on highways, for long hours. The truck steers itself at the set limit of 55 mph on the highway- which normally is free of pedestrians, traffic lights, bicycles or any unpredictable obstacle or social situations that arise on urban streets. The team believes with the right automation technology, chances of crashes would come down in such automated trucks as compared to the vehicles driven by fatigued drivers. This would in turn save on insurance, while there would be an increase in fuel efficiency by up to a third.
Otto's endeavor is to give charge of the truck to its computer for 8-9 hours that would allow the trucker to go to sleep, without halting in between.
However, it still requires nerves of steel to ride in such a vehicle as one needs to let go of his belief that man is better than machine. One has to take that leap of faith hoping the machine would steer in the right direction and in the right amount as he is actually giving the control of his life to it. In this case, the machine has to be a better driver than humans, which can see the roads better than them.
Eyebrows were raised when Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was killed driving a Tesla Model S in the first fatality involving a self-driving car. Nonetheless, it is still the early stage for self-driving technology and therefore has huge challenges to meet.
Uber is also focusing on its ambitious plan of commencing self-driving taxis to ferry customers around Pittsburgh as soon as this month, a first for the industry in a race among automobile and technology companies to make driverless cars commercially available. Although it seems to be a bold step, but Uber would place its employees in the front seat of each vehicle. Considering the challenges one faces in the urban driving, chances are these driverless taxis would probably be available in small, controlled areas.
Nonetheless, the effort signals a breakthrough in commercialization of the technology and if successful, this is surely going to create a new source of income for Uber and in broader sphere, revolutionize the transportation sector.