August 24, 2016 Vol. 13 No. 17

Wowza, talk about a blockbuster. Uber buys Otto, the technology startup that’s developing autonomous technology for class-8 trucks, and suddenly the freight game looks different. Not that Uber hadn’t already waded into these waters, and it’s already been doing small-parcel delivery in its ordinary cars in a few places, but now we’re talking serious freight.

“It’s time to rethink the way we move goods on the road,” says Otto.

We all know about Uber but what’s Otto? I wrote about them in this newsletter on May 18 (go here). See a video here. It’s a San Francisco startup that’s only a few months old but as of May had already retrofitted three Volvo tractors with its automated-driving technology — meaning the sensors and cameras and software that allow a tractor-trailer to drive itself, though so far only on interstate highways where lane markings are especially well defined. Hence, the system’s name: Interstate Autopilot. The concept sees autonomous retrofits on existing tractors for about US$30,000.

Otto got its quick start because its founders have actually been working on vehicle automation for years. Led by former Technical Lead of Google’s autonomous car division Anthony Levandowski and former Product Lead of Google Maps Lior Ron, the company is sufficiently confident to say, “We’re a team of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology and robotics.” And it clearly is.

Another former Google employee, Don Burnette, and a robotics specialist, Claire Delaunay, are also part of Otto’s leadership. There are some 90 employees all told, and because some of them made pretty big money at Google, Otto is completely self-funded.

They say their aim is to design “a new approach to modern transportation, starting with self-driving trucks.”

UBER IS SERIOUSLY RAISING its efforts to expand from the ride-sharing market to commercial freight movement by acquiring Otto, and people in both camps seem pretty enthusiastic.