Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What’s next, self-delivering pretzels?

Raise the flag, break out the yogurt, and call the hogs home. It has happened – the very first commercial delivery by an autonomous truck.

The big day was Thursday, Oct. 20. The load was canned Budweiser beer on pallets from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs in Colorado, about 120 miles on Interstate 25. The truck was a Volvo modified by Otto to drive itself. Otto is not the German baker down the block. It’s a San Francisco technology startup recently acquired by Uber.

Manufacturers like Daimler and Volvo have demonstrated autonomous trucks and plan to bring them to market in the next few years. Otto isn’t waiting. They’re developing kits that can make many standard Class 8 tractors – like that Volvo – autonomous now.

No, the Otto Volvo did not drive dock-to-dock on its own. A human driver steered it onto I-25 in Fort Collins and took over again in Colorado Springs. On the interstate, the Volvo drove itself with the driver still aboard. It was not a technological landmark moment. We already know this stuff works.

But in terms of marketing, Otto pulled off a huge publicity coup in the logistics and tech media to position itself out in front of the big truck makers.

Check out the snazzy video about the beer trip.

Otto’s video is audacious compared to videos from those big truck makers. In a Daimler video, for example, the driver switches on autopilot, then swivels in the driver’s seat and begins reading a magazine. In the Otto video, the driver unbuckles himself and climbs out of his seat altogether. He plops down in a seat behind the driver’s seat and starts reading – clearly without a seat belt. Otto will be getting some emails about that.

But it’s one thing to watch through the windshield as a driver swivels in place. It’s quite another to see the driver get up and maneuver to that seat behind the driver’s seat. It’s not exactly ballet, and in the Otto video for a second or two you’re looking at the driver’s ass framed in the windshield while the Volvo rolls along at highway speed. I wonder if anyone else got the same queasy feeling I did watching that.

In any case, I hope Otto’s engineers pay more attention to detail than their marketing guys – and it’s not just about that awkward seat-change moment. They pulled off another boo-boo on the Otto website.

On the Otto home page, you’re confronted with two buttons, one for the video and another labeled “early access.”

Turns out the “access” is to Uber Freight, soon to be launched by Otto’s parent company. Uber Freight wants you to sign up, and to lure you in they’ve posted a splendid video of a tractor-trailer rolling through a beautiful landscape. I guess the idea is that Uber loads go to prettier places.

But don’t look at the video too closely. The truck is a cabover. It’s European. That pretty landscape is not in the USA. Reminds me of General Motors failing to sell the Chevy Nova in South America. They kept trying until someone pointed out the obvious: in Spanish “no va” means “doesn’t go.”

OK, the video is not that bad. But Otto’s parent company should get to know the trucking community, especially the independent drivers it hopes to recruit.