Robot-loving engineer Anthony Levandowski, 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 he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay.
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 U.S. 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.
Otto already has assembled a crew of about 40 employees experienced in self-driving cars to transplant the technology to trucks. With former employees from Google, Apple and Tesla Motors, Otto boasts that its team is made up of "some of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology."
At only four months old, Otto has already outfitted three big-rig cabs with its automated technology. The company completed its first extended test of its system on public highways in Nevada during the past weekend.
Now, Otto is 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. The volunteer truckers would still be expected to seize the wheel and take control of the truck if the technology fails or the driving conditions make it unsafe to remain in autonomous mode, mirroring the laws governing tests of self-driving cars on public streets and highways.