Otto offers retro-fit driverless lorries

Screen grab from Otto video Image copyright Otto
Image caption One of the aims of Otto will be to reduce road deaths involving lorry collisions

A group of former employees from Google, Apple and Tesla has formed a start-up aimed at turning commercial lorries into self-drive vehicles.

Rather than building vehicles from scratch, Otto will make kits to retro-fit existing lorries.

The start-up, which will be self-funded, is betting on autonomous lorries becoming a reality before cars.

Drivers will still be required to take the wheel on non-motorway roads.

Implementing self-driving technology on US motorways is seen as being easier than on other roads or city streets.

Details about when the first models will hit the road and the price of them are not yet available, although Otto has said that it would be "a fraction" of the cost of building a truck from scratch.

The kit will include cameras, radar and lidar sensors which will allow the vehicle to safely keep within a lane, maintain a set speed and slow or stop when necessary. It is unlikely, at this stage, to be able to change lanes.

Driverless trucks are already becoming a reality.

Daimler has tested its Mercedes-Benz lorry on motorways in Germany and has also been granted the first autonomous truck licence in Nevada. In Europe, convoys of semi-autonomous driving lorries from six different manufacturers have travelled across the continent with a driver in the lead setting the speed and route and the other trucks following automatically.

One of Otto's main goals will be to reduce road accidents involving drivers who work long hours.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, there are around 4,000 fatal accidents in the US each year involving trucks or buses. Between 10% and 20% of these are linked to driver fatigue.

Otto is looking for 1,000 truckers to volunteer to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs to fine-tune the technology.

The American Trucking Association, the US trade group for lorry drivers, said it was looking at drawing up a policy for self-driving technology later this year.

"We are paying close attention because this could be huge for trucking in terms of labour costs and safety," Dave Osiecki, chief of national advocacy told the AP news wire.

San Francisco-based Otto currently has around 40 employees, including Anthony Levandowski, who built Google's first self-driving car.

In an interview with technology website BackChannel, co-founder Lior Ron, ex-product boss for Google Maps, said the firm had already completed several tests of a retro-fitted Volvo cab.

"We have driven on a bunch of roads in California and outside, testing the sensors. And we've done driving with a safety driver in the back seat but the truck driving autonomously, and a couple of miles completely driverless without a driver in the back seat at all."

But the firm has greater ambitions, he added.

"We want to get the technology to the point where it's safe to let the driver rest and sleep in his cabin and we can drive for him, exit to exit."

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