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Self driving trucks set to take to American roads by the end of the year

Self-driving trucking start-up Otto is poised to put its software in the hands of long-haul truckers by the end of this year for testing, the firm has claimed. 

Otto, co-founded by Google car and map project veterans Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, will also begin testing five retrofitted Volvo trucks at Northern California's autonomous vehicle testing grounds, GoMentum Station, in coming weeks.

By the end of the year, small owner-operators and larger commercial partners will begin using Otto's self-driving kit, Levandowski told Reuters at the facility in Concord, north of San Francisco, adding the company has a target of 'thousands' of testers by 2017.

Otto has not yet announced when the technology will be ready for sale.

Launched in May, Otto focuses on maximizing the efficiency and safety of long-haul trucks, which spend much of their time on the side of the road as drivers rest.

The Otto trucks are equipped with a series of sensors and mapping technology to allow them to gauge their position on highways and make real-time driving decisions.

It's unknown just how Otto's partners will test the trucks, but Otto's vision allows the driver to leave the wheel, similar to a plane's 'autopilot' system.

Many experts believe full self-driving technology will first roll out in the trucking sector, rather than in passenger cars. 

Autonomous driving lends itself to highways, where trucks do not have to contend with pedestrians and the myriad distractions of city streets.

Ron said trucks fitted with Otto software can drive more than double their normal daily mileage. 

'There is a very strong return on investment.'

Since its launch, Otto has received hundreds of emails from mom-and-pop owner-operators around the country asking to use the technology, Ron said.

Otto's staff has more than doubled to 90 employees from 40 in May, and the self-funded company now has a fleet of five test trucks.

Picture an 18-wheel truck barreling down the highway with 80,000 pounds of cargo and no one but a robot at the wheel.

To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google's driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona.

But Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google's self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system. 

The idea is similar to the automated pilots that fly jets at high altitudes while leaving the takeoffs and landings to humans.

'Our goal is to make trucks drive as humanly as possible, but with the reliability of machines,' Levandowski says.

That objective probably won't be reached for decades, despite the progress made with automated passenger vehicles over the past five years, predicts Steven Shladover, program manager for mobility at the University of California's Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology.

He maintains that the technology is still a long way from being reliable enough to convince government regulators that a robot can be entrusted to steer a truck traveling at highway speeds without causing a catastrophic accident.

'I don't want to be on that highway when there is nobody there to take over a truck with 80,000 pounds of cargo and I don't think I know anyone else who would want to be,'Shladover says. 

Otto already has assembled a crew of about 40 employees experienced in self-driving cars to transplant the technology to trucks. With former employees from Google, Apple and Tesla Motors, Otto boasts that its team is made up of 'some of the sharpest minds in self-driving technology.'

Although only four months old, Otto already has outfitted three big-rig cabs with its automated technology. The company completed its first extended test of its system on public highways in Nevada during the past weekend.

Otto went to Nevada because California's self-driving regulations apply only to passenger cars, forbidding the technology from being used on public roads by commercial trucks or any vehicle exceeding 10,000 pounds.

Now, Otto is looking for 1,000 truckers to volunteer to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs, at no cost, to help fine-tune the technology. 

The volunteer truckers would still be expected to seize the wheel and take control of the truck if the technology fails or the driving conditions make it unsafe to remain in autonomous mode, mirroring the laws governing tests of self-driving cars on public streets and highways.

Otto hasn't set a timetable for completing its tests, but hopes to eventually retrofit all the U.S. trucks on the road. That would encompass more than 4.7 million trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

The trade group hasn't taken a stand on self-driving technology, but may draw up a policy later this year, said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy.

'We are paying close attention because this could be huge for trucking in terms of labor costs and safety,' Osiecki says.

Levandowski insists self-driving trucks aren't as scary as they might sound. Robot truckers are less likely to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions than a human, and will never get tired. Between 10 and 20 percent of the roughly 4,000 fatal accidents in the U.S. each year involving trucks and buses are linked to driver fatigue, based on estimates gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

'It's really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,' Levandowski says.

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