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Otto, founded by ex-Googlers, is bringing self-driving technology to trucks

TechCrunch TechCrunch 17/05/2016 Jon Russell

Self-driving cars are very much a part of the future of tech, with Google, Uber, Apple and plenty of other top names working to develop autonomous vehicles. But what about trucks? That’s where Otto, a startup that has come out of stealth, is aiming to shape the future.

Founded by former Googlers Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay, Otto wants to “rethink” the commercial trucking industry.

In a Medium post, Levandowski, who lead Google’s self-driving car efforts, and Ron, formerly with Google Maps and Motorola, explained that not only do trucks account for an oversized slice of pollution in the U.S. — 28 percent of road pollution despite making up just one percent of all traffic, they claim — but they cause a large number of fatalities, are inefficient and, to top it off, there’s an increasing shortage of drivers. That creates the perfect storm for a tech-based solution, Otto’s founders believe.

Otto started out with tools to help truck drivers perform their job with increased safety, but now it is working on technology that, in time, can automate parts of the drive on highways.

Unlike others, which are designing new vehicles that drive autonomously, Otto focuses on technology that can be fitted into trucks that are on the road now. Rather than eradicating drivers by making them obsolete, the immediate goal is assistance. The duo told Backchannel that, among many things, they aim to let drivers safely take a sleep break while leaving their truck driving autonomously.

The company said it has already completed one public highway demo of its system, and it is hatching grander plans beyond that.

“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,” Levandowski and Lior wrote.

Otto’s team of 40 includes many former Googlers, as you might expect, and other staffers have worked at Tesla, HERE, Apple, Cruise, and various automobile companies.

The company has lurked under the radar before its unveiling today — many of its staff haven’t updated their LinkedIn profiles with their new roles, for example — and there will be many questions about it, such as which investors are bankrolling it.

Further down the road — no pun intended — it’ll be interesting to see how others in the autonomous space react to Otto’s emergence. Apple is reported to have “hundreds” of people working on its secretive car project, Faraday Future has emergedflushed with cash from Chinese investors — and there is, of course, Google. Does the Google connection make Otto and its tech ripe for an acquisition? Will others want a part of the company? We shall see.

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