In the arms race to build self-driving vehicles, the Uber-owned company Otto last week reached a milestone by completing the first commercial cargo run for a self-driving truck.
On Thursday, the self-driving truck left Fort Collins, Colorado, at 1 a.m. and drove itself 120 miles on I-25 to Colorado Springs. The driver, who has to be there to help the truck get on and off the interstate exit ramps, moved to the backseat alongside a crowd of transportation officials to watch the historic ride.
Two thousand cases of Budweiser beer filled the trailer.
“We’re just thrilled – we do think this is the future of transportation,” James Sembrot, the senior director of logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch InBev, told Business Insider.
The beverage company, which outsources all of its beer delivery, paid Otto to deliver the cases of Budweiser to test the technology’s commercial uses. The German automaker Daimler has also tested self-driving trucks across Europe and in limited cases in Nevada, but it hasn’t accepted commercial trucking loads yet.
Otto’s beer run is just the beginning of what the company plans to accomplish.
‘This is real’
While others working on self-driving technology are building new vehicles, Otto is designing a system that could be retrofitted onto existing trucks. Sembrot contacted Otto after reading about the team in the news this spring. Six months later, it’s already transporting AB InBev’s Budweiser beer.
To Anheuser-Busch, Otto’s ability to integrate with more than just one kind of truck meant it could save both money and the environment by working with operators who use Otto’s self-driving technology, Sembrot said.
“This was the first load,” Sembrot said. “We are excited to not only do business with Otto going forward, but as Lior [Ron] scales the technology.”
Transporting the first load, though, wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch.
To prepare for the beer run, Otto sent some of its trucks and team to Colorado to start mapping the roads for the truck a few weeks ago. Eventually, Otto started adding dummy trailers, eventually filling them with dummy beer to understand how the truck would react when it was fully loaded. The company spent weeks studying the traffic patterns and landscape before deciding that 1 a.m. was the best time to run the shipment.
Ron acknowledges that Otto still has a long way to go in making it more efficient – after all, each commercial load can’t take weeks to prepare. In the early days of self-driving trucks, though, each trip will not only help in mapping out the interstates for Otto’s kits but will also make the other drivers on the interstate more familiar with driving alongside a truck with no one in the driver’s seat. As the Otto test shows, the technology is here and already being put to commercial use.
“This is real,” Ron said.