By Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron
Highways are the backbone of America. They are the country’s original network, and have sparked new communities and businesses in their wake. Today, U.S. interstate highways total 222,000 miles and carry the 4.3 million commercial trucks that have become just as powerful a symbol of the American transportation system as the roads themselves.
But on these highways, these very same trucks are causing an unacceptable number of fatalities every year, and truck drivers have experienced a gradual decline in quality of life as conditions worsen and expectations rise. It is this that has compelled us at Otto to deliver the self-driving technology that will help transform our transportation system and bring safety to our roads.
On any given day, trucks move 70 percent of all cargo in the U.S. – that’s 14 billion tons of freight annually. In the coming years, those numbers will continue to tick upwards to keep pace with our growing demand for even more goods, delivered more quickly.
But what was a marvel of engineering and innovation a century ago is now no longer able to keep up with modern day demands. One in seven trucks is driving empty on the road, contributing to the severe congestion on our highways. Large trucks make up 1 percent of vehicles on the road but create 28 percent of road-based pollution.
These issues are compounded further by the fact that highways – which we already rely on so heavily – also have a poor safety record. Over the years, we’ve become complacent about the significant toll of traffic-related accidents, especially when it comes to trucks. While trucks drive just 5.6 percent of all U.S. miles, they’re at fault for nearly 9.5 percent of all driving fatalities: in recent years, on average, eight people die on the road due to truck accidents every day.
We currently lack both the infrastructure and personnel to support the surge in demand for trucking. In 2015, the American Trucking Association reported a shortage of nearly 50,000 drivers, projected to grow to nearly 150,000 by 2020. This is no small gap to fill, especially given the grueling nature of the job and the declining conditions in which the current 1.6 million truck drivers in the U.S. are expected to operate.
It’s time to rethink the way we move goods on the road.
To speed the adoption of self-driving technology, we began by equipping existing trucks on the road with our unique self-driving kit, designed to empower truck drivers to drive more safely and efficiently. We are developing a suite of sensors, software and truck enhancements coming together in a product that can be quickly outfitted on existing trucks.
Testing the technology is currently underway on highways with our research fleet, and we recently completed an autonomous demo of the technology on a public highway. We intend to enhance the capabilities of the Otto truck, collect safety data to demonstrate its benefits, and bring this technology to every corner of the U.S. highway system.
This is a critical effort, with wide-reaching implications for all of us, that requires cooperation between government agencies, the private sector, truck fleets, drivers, manufacturers and the brightest engineers. It’s time to move.
Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron are co-founders of Otto, www.ot.to.