Home > Uncategorized > Self-Driving Truck’s First Mission: A 120-Mile Beer Run

Self-Driving Truck’s First Mission: A 120-Mile Beer Run

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An Otto truck on a San Francisco street in May. Credit Ramin Rahimian for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The futurists of Silicon Valley may not have seen this one coming: The first commercial delivery made by a self-driving truck was 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer.

On Tuesday, Otto, the Uber-owned self-driving vehicle operation, announced the completion of its first commercial delivery, having delivered its beer load from Fort Collins, Colo., to Colorado Springs, a roughly 120-mile trip on Interstate 25.

In recent years, Uber has predicted a future in which you can ride in a self-driving car that will take you where you want to go, no driver necessary. But the idea that commercial trucking could be done by robot is a relatively new idea — and a potentially controversial one, given the possibility that robots could one day replace human drivers.

“We think this technology is inching closer to commercial availability,” Lior Ron, co-founder of Otto, said in an interview.

In August, Uber acquired Otto, a San Francisco start-up run by a number of veterans of Google’s long-running autonomous vehicle research.

Though largely symbolic, the beer delivery marks the first commercial partnership for Otto, which was founded less than a year ago. Terms of the deal between Otto and Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns the Budweiser brand, were not disclosed.

“We’ve tested with trailers, of course, but there’s nothing like actually doing the real thing, end to end,” Mr. Ron said.

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An Otto truck on the road, with the driver’s seat empty. Although a driver was at hand, no intervention was needed.

The delivery was indicative of Uber’s larger ambitions to become an enormous transportation network, one in which the company is responsible for moving anything, like people, hot meals or cases of beer, around the globe, at all hours and as efficiently as possible. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, has said he envisions a future in which transportation will occur in different ways, using both manned and unmanned vehicles.

Otto is a particularly large bet for Uber, which paid nearly $700 million for the start-up only a few months after the company started publicly discussing its self-driving-truck ambitions.

Since backing down from its money-burning effort to dominate the Chinese ride-hailing market in August, Uber has invested more time and resources to focus on breaking into the trucking market. Annual trucking industry revenue topped $720 billion in 2015, according to American Trucking Association estimates.

A good part of that total came from top brands that rely heavily on the trucking industry to transport their goods. Anheuser-Busch, for example, delivers more than a million truckloads of beer domestically every year.

“We view self-driving trucks as the future, and we want to be a part of that,” said James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch. Though the delivery went smoothly, the two companies did not indicate whether there would be any further deals.

For this initial delivery, Otto’s truck departed Anheuser-Busch’s facility in Loveland, Colo., in the early morning before reaching the interstate in Fort Collins. The truck drove through Denver — alongside regular passenger car traffic — and navigated to its destination in Colorado Springs without incident.

Otto said a trained driver was in the cabin of the truck at all times to monitor the vehicle’s progress and take over if necessary. At no point was the driver required to intervene, the company said.

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