IT WAS after midnight and the executive director of the Colorado transport department was at the back of a motorway convoy escorting an articulated lorry loaded with beer.
“It looked like a truck going down the road. It had to respond to [traffic], vehicles passing it, merging in front of it, curves in the road,” Shailen Bhatt said. “The only thing that looked off was when you passed the vehicle and you looked in to see the driver, and there was no driver.”
The future of cargo hauling may have arrived on the morning of Thursday, October 27, when a driverless 53ft lorry travelled more than 120 miles along Interstate 25, passing through the city of Denver. It was delivering 2,000 cases of Budweiser from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
“This milestone marks the first time in history that a self-driving vehicle has shipped commercial cargo, making it a landmark achievement for self-driving technology, the state of Colorado and the transportation industry,” the brewer said in a joint statement with Otto, the San Francisco company, owned by Uber, that developed the technology.
The test run was carried out between 1am and 3am. The lorry travelled in the middle lane as part of a convoy that also included four police vehicles, two tow trucks and four Otto vehicles.
The lorry was on a familiar journey: it had done the same run hundreds of times with someone in the driving seat to keep an eye on things.
“The technology will allow long-haul drivers to sleep on main roads so that they are fresh for the more complex parts of the journey”
On this occasion a driver was monitoring the system from the lorry’s sleeping berth. He did not need to take over at any point, Otto said, although he drove the truck onto the motorway and away from it.
Uber, which paid almost $700m (£490m) for Otto shortly after the company was set up in February, tested self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last month, but that system is thought to be less well developed than driverless lorries.
Otto hopes its technology will allow long-haul drivers to sleep on main roads so that they are fresh for the more complicated parts of the journey — which will make roads safer for all. About 400,000 lorries crash every year in America, killing about 4,000 people, and human error is the cause in almost every case.
“We think that self-driving technologies can improve safety, reduce emissions and improve operational efficiencies of our shipments,” said James Sembrot, head of logistics for Anheuser-Busch.
Ben Hoyle, Los Angeles
This article first appeared in The Times