Lior Ron has a truckload of proof for his declaration that automatic vehicles belong not to the future but to the present. He’s the co-founder of Otto, an Israeli startup that sent a driverless truck full of Budweiser beer down a Colorado highway earlier this month,
“It was a historic drive,” Ron told a Tel Aviv conference, describing how the truck, carrying thousands of cans of beer, drove itself 190 kilometers (120 miles) down the I-25 from Fort Collins through Denver to Colorado Springs, with the driver sitting in the back during the entire journey “like a second pilot.”
“We are now in advanced stages to do more trips and to commercialize the technology,” declared Ron.
Otto and Uber, which bought the startup for $690 million in August, are at the forefront of driverless car technology, which has seen an explosion of interest this year by corporations and investors. There have been a dozen venture capital-backed exits in the auto tech sector since 2012, with five in 2016 alone, a report by CB Insights, a New York-based data company, shows.
One million people die yearly on the roads globally, said Ron, who was a Google employee and a technology chief in the Israeli army before founding the company in January 2016. Otto’s aim, he said, was to re-think transportation and create self-driving vehicles in a push to make the roads safer. “Computers can see better, react better and they don’t get tired,” he said.
The company focused on highways and on trucks, he said, because most of the accidents happen on highways and most of them involve trucks. They retrofitted an old Volvo truck with radar, a GPS and cameras and started their experiments in a suburban area of Palo Alto. After five weeks they had the truck driving in a parking lot without a driver. In August Uber acquired the company, and two months after that they held the historic beer delivery, he said.
The drive was carefully planned, Ron said, with the Uber Otto team getting the necessary regulatory and police approval for the drive and delivery. They carefully mapped out the road and chose a time — 1 a.m. — in which there would be the least possible drivers. On October 20 they went ahead with the plan.
With a police car following the ride closely, the technology performed “completely smoothly,” said Ron, but the journey was not without jitters as there were quite a few drunk drivers on the highway.
“Two of them tried to compete with the truck,” he said, to laughter in the audience. They were stopped. Some police officials radioed seeing “a driverless truck” on the highway as well, he said, but were reassured by police headquarters. Another driver, possibly realizing what was happening, started driving recklessly, taking photographs of the truck. He too was stopped. A local TV channel was about to report about the driverless truck, but was dissuaded by police who said the report would cause a safety hazard.
Ron said Otto was the first company in history to get payment for an operation without a driver. It earned $478 and a huge amount of beer from Budweiser in recognition of the eventful journey, he said.
Apple, Audi, China’s search giant Baidu and a consortium of BMW with Intel and Mobileye are among the corporate groups that are involved in the development of advanced driver assistance systems and self-driving vehicles. Private companies working in the auto tech sector are set to attract a record level of deals and funding this year, CB Insights said, with autonomous driving startups leading the list.
As of July, investors had piled a total of $450 million in 36 deals for auto tech startups, and investments in 2016 are on track to reach an estimated record $847 million, well above the $478 million in financing the sector received in the whole of 2015, the data company said.
Lior, who is a graduate of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and has an MBA from Stamford, said Israel should further consolidate its position as a leader in self-driving technology through the implementation of regulation that will allow global and local companies to test out their technologies in Israel.
“I hope the regulatory environment will adapt,” he said “Israel is the perfect playground for these technologies. We can map the whole state in one day and we can charge an electric car and reach anywhere in Israel. We can use all the knowledge here to bring real innovation. But that also requires legal changes to allow us and other to lay out these communication networks and to allow us to deploy automatic cars.”