Uber claim that in what is the world’s first commercial delivery in a driverless vehicle, the ride-hailing giant teamed up with AB InBev to transport beer in an autonomous vehicle.
With nobody behind the wheel, a tractor trailer full of beer drove itself down Colorado’s I-25 last week.
Uber Technologies Inc. had teamed up with Anheuser-Busch InBev NV on the delivery.
The companies said that while a truck driver hung out back in the sleeper cab, the 18-wheeler cruised more than 120 miles with a police cruiser in tow. Proof that Otto, the self-driving vehicle group that Uber acquired in July, could successfully put an autonomous truck into the wild, the delivery appears to be mostly a stunt.
“We wanted to show that the basic building blocks of the technology are here; we have the capability of doing that on a highway. We are still in the development stages, iterating on the hardware and software,” said Lior Ron, the president and co-founder of Uber’s Otto unit.
Even if drivers continued to ride along and supplement the technology, if AB InBev could deploy autonomous trucks across its distribution network, the beverage giant said it could save $50 million a year in the U.S. A more frequent delivery schedule and reduced fuel costs would be the source of the savings.
Amid mounting regulatory and public scrutiny, proving the viability of autonomous trucking has become more important. Most Americans aren’t sold on the technology, surveys show. Particularly sensitive to it is the U.S. trucking industry. It employed 1.5 million people in September, jobs that may be threatened by autonomous vehicles, even while fatalities in the industry far exceed those of other businesses and could therefore benefit from improved safety.
Calls for regulations to keep pace with the technological advances were hastened and political attention on self-driving vehicles were focused after the death of a driver using Tesla Motors Inc.’s autopilot system in May. While warning of a world of “human guinea pigs,” the technology’s life-saving potential was acknowledged by the U.S. Transportation Department which released policy guidelines for autonomous driving.
Ron said that to arrange for police supervision of the shipment and to get permission for the delivery, Uber’s Otto team worked with Colorado regulators. Carefully mapping the road to make sure the technology could handle it, Otto spent two weeks scoping out the driving route from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The team wanted the trip to take place on a day when the weather was clear and in the early morning when traffic would be relatively light. And when the delivery took place, those conditions were met.
As it’s doing with Volvo on self-driving cars, Uber wants to partner with automakers and does not plan to build its own trucks, Ron said. The company’s discussions with truck manufacturers are in early phases, he said.
There is a long way to go for the software. And truck drivers shouldn’t have to worry about finding a new profession anytime soon as the autonomous drive in Colorado was limited to the highway.
“The focus has really been and will be for the future on the highway. Over 95 percent of the hours driven are on the highway. Even in the future as we start doing more, we still think a driver is needed in terms of supervising the vehicle,” Ron said.
(Adapted from Bloomberg)