Inside the cavernous warehouse where a bunch of ex-Googlers are building self-driving trucks

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Lior Ron poses in front of an Otto truck
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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Right this very second, at least one Otto truck is barreling down the highway with a driver sitting behind its wheel but touching absolutely nothing.

The truck is driving itself.

“We try to have our four trucks out 24/7,” said Lior Ron, Otto’s cofounder, with a grin. “We’re moving as fast as we can.”

The 6-month-old startup is sprinting toward what Ron describes as the not-so-distant future of self-driving semis, where existing trucks can install one of Otto’s $30,000 kits to produce autonomous driving capabilities.

On the trip that’s taking place now, two people ride in the truck: one behind the wheel and another studying what the truck’s Lidar and software systems are “seeing.” But ultimately, Otto envisions that trucks will only require one person, and that the “driver” will be able to take lunch breaks and naps in the cab while the truck fully steers itself down the highway, requiring him or her to take control only on regular roads.

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Otto / Business Insider

Ron and his three cofounders, all former Google employees, believe self-driving trucks could be widespread in less than five years – much sooner than the fully autonomous consumer vehicles that their old employer is working on and with the potential for a similarly huge effect.

Ron flings out stats, rapid-fire style: Roughly 1% of all vehicles in the US are large trucks, but they’re creating 28% of the road-based pollution. They drive 5.6% of all US miles, but they’re at fault for nearly 9.5% of all driving fatalities.

“There’s more and more demand for truck drivers to drive more with less time,” Ron says. “We’re living in an on-demand era where we all want to press a button and have something arrive as fast as possible. Well, there’s a truck behind all of those products.”

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Otto

He argues that self-driving trucks would mean fewer sleep-deprived drivers and less environmental impact (since the trucks wouldn’t be wasting fuel by accelerating and decelerating as much). Plus, if trucks could drive 24/7 (versus the 10 hours that a driver can legally go) that would mean more efficient deliveries, too.

To better explain his vision, Ron gave Business Insider one of the first peeks inside Otto’s cavernous headquarters to see where the innovation is cracking. Check it out:


Otto’s San Francisco headquarters look like a standard garage from the outside.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

The space actually used to be a truck depot, but the most recent tenant before Otto used it to store massive amounts of furniture.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

(We’ll see a bit more of that later, once we’re deeper inside the building. Apparently, the former tenants didn’t do a very thorough job moving out.)

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

But now that Otto has moved in, employees and visitors are greeted by one of the four massive trucks, unless they’re all out on the road.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Some of Otto’s autonomous guts are tucked under the truck’s hood, but you can peep the cameras, radar equipment, and Lidar sensors on the outside.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Ron used to be the product lead for Google Maps, and cofounder Anthony Levandowski was a technical lead for Google’s self-driving car. The two other cofounders are Don Burnette and Claire Delaunay.


To be as fast and efficient as possible, Otto makes the majority of its parts in-house.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Abram Burkholder, one of Otto’s mechanical engineers, shows off one of the rotary machines.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

You need that to make this.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Otto makes its own laser systems, too, so it blocked off a special testing area. If the light is on, it means that tests are live, and employees without proper eyewear need to stay away.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Further into the office, we notice a funny startup perk: Employees can park their cars inside the office. It is a garage, after all.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Right now, Otto has about 80 employees (having doubled since May), but the cavernous space has ample room for many, many more.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

When we stopped by, the late-afternoon sunshine streamed through the windows, patterning the concrete floors and giving the place a warm glow.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

The startup is completely funded by the four founders. While Ron wouldn’t comment on exactly how much everyone chipped in, he says the space was actually a great deal.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

It even includes a few long, mazelike hallways with rooms shooting off them.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Although much of the office is barren, Otto needed its token foosball table. This Ask.com relic is pretty vintage.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Like many other startups, Otto also serves employees breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re not talking Google-level cuisine, but …

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

… there were plenty of snacks.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Hello, Seamus.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

Otto’s gear can be attached to any truck with an automatic transmission (generally 2013 models and later). Because the lifespan of a semi is 11 years, Ron sees the modification method as the best way to get the technology out as quickly as possible.

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro

He also sees that as Otto’s biggest differentiator. Trucking company Daimler has an autonomous truck called the Freightliner Inspiration (below), and several other startups are working on the problem, too.

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Freightliner Inspiration

“Commercial transportation is the backbone of the US economy — there’s so much opportunity to do good here,” Ron said. “And technologically, the problem is so much more constrained and, we think, solvable.”

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Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro