Otto’s Autonomous Semi-Truck Joins Growing Connected Truck Market

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

A great deal of ink is spilled on autonomous vehicle technology, but it's not the only innovation that fleet managers might one day use to boost driver safety and throughput.

Otto Motors, a 40-person San Francisco startup staffed with a bevy of former Google employees (including a Google Maps lead), as well as recruits from Tesla and other firms at the nexus of transportation and technology, had a major coming-out party on May 17. The company released a video showing an 18-wheeler semi-truck hauling down a highway without anyone in the driver's seat (though there was a driver in the back seat, in case anything went wrong), and hundreds of news stories followed.

Otto has made a kit used to retrofit semi-trucks for autonomous operation. According to news reports, the company believes trucking to be a logical place for autonomous vehicles to take root, given the high cost of the vehicles—around $150,000 apiece, according to Wired, which makes the kit's $30,000 price tag more palatable—and the proposition of being able (in theory, at least) to have a "driver" take a nap in the truck's cab once his or her shift ends.

Last year, Daimler demonstrated an autonomously operated 18-wheeler that it predicts could be deployed commercially within a decade. Otto is the first company to offer a retrofitting solution to fleets that have already invested in late-model trucks (according to Wired, the kit works only with semis that have automatic transmissions, which have become commonplace only in the past two years).

But safety is a big part of Otto's proposition to trucking companies. By removing human error from the equation, autonomous vehicles may prove to be far safer than human-operated vehicles.

Still, there are other approaches to boosting truck safety. Last year, we reported on Olea Sensor Networks, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup that has developed sensor-based collision-prevention technology able to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects—and even determine whether animate objects are human or non-human. The firm is now working with automotive and trucking manufacturers to integrate the technology into driver-safety systems—communication platforms that monitor drivers' activity and surrounding environment, alerting them to various dangers, such as vehicles in blind spots or a stopped or slow-moving vehicle ahead of them. Although the system is not designed to help long-haul truckers avoid pedestrians on the highway, that is not likely to be an issue in countries with developed transportation infrastructures.

This week, Olea announced a partnership with Flat Earth, a systems integrator that serves the industrial trucking market and sells modules using ultra-wideband pulse radar presence-detection technology supplied by Norwegian firm Novelda, to co-develop collision-avoidance technology for use on forklifts. The firms point out that according to OSHA, forklift accidents account for 35,000 serious workplace injuries each year in the United States.

Instrumenting drivers—or, at least, their uniforms—with sensors that track each driver's vital signs and forward that data to a cloud-based platform via a cellular network, could be another approach to improving safety in the trucking industry. As we reported this week, sensor maker Analog Devices is working with Microsoft and smart apparel maker Hexoskin to outfit athletes with vests that collect data regarding their movements, heart rate and respiration, and then send that information to coaches. But driver safety is one of the next applications that Analog Devices is considering for similar sensor-enabled apparel.

"Think of truck drivers going on long journeys," says Jason Lynch, Analog Devices' director of IoT strategy. Tracking each driver's movements and vital signs, he explains, could offer fleet managers some insight into that individual's health or level of fatigue.

In addition, Olea Sensor Networks has been evaluating the effectiveness of integrating its sensor module—which can also be used to track a person's heart rate and respiration—into vehicle seats in order to monitor drivers' health. A number of other vendors are providing trucking companies with systems that rely on a combination of heart-rate sensors and cameras that track eye movements, alerting drivers if they appear to be getting drowsy.

However, setting such potentially life-saving applications aside, connecting trucks to cyber-physical networks comes with a different kind of safety issue. As trucking industry magazine Trucks.Com reported this week, cybersecurity concerns are mounting in the long-haul trucking industry, as fleet managers adopt more technology, such as camera systems and fatigue-detection technology.

That, according to researchers, is because the telematics systems that connect trucks to networks tend to be insecure. An independent security researcher published a report last month that showed he was able to use the Shodan Internet of Things search engine to find thousands of telematics units that utilize a cellular modem to connect to the Internet, with a public IP addresses and no user authentication protocols, and "with administrative interfaces through a web panel or a telnet session."