Self-driving semi? See how it’s being tested on the Ohio Turnpike

BEREA, Ohio-- It's a truck named Otto with a man named Matt riding shotgun.  Otto is a normal Volvo semi with Cleveland-made wheels that can pull a lot of cargo.

But Otto has a brain and eyes.

Not just Matt's -- but LIDAR, RADAR and other technology-- that could allow it to drive without Matt or anyone else inside the truck.

“Because of all the sensors we have it can perceive distances and speed much better than any human can, so it always maintains a safe buffer between the truck and the traffic ahead of it," said Matt Grigsby, who has been traveling and monitoring the truck's performance for the past several weeks.

So far so good.

Otto has logged thousands of miles and hours on the nation's highways from here to California, hauling various loads like a beer trailer though Colorado and an Ohio Transportation Department tanker down US Route 33 from the Indiana line to Columbus.

The team is in constant contact with the software development team in California, recording every decision that the truck makes while on the road.

The more testing, the better so that the software can learn about different driving conditions.
The Ohio Turnpike is a great testing ground.

“We're looking for all the everyday stuff and the things you're not planning for," Grigsby said. “That's why we come out to different states like Ohio, and on the turnpike. We're looking to test in different traffic scenarios and then eventually in other weather conditions like rain and snow and fog and things like that."

Will the Otto system actually replace truck drivers one day? Experts say probably not, but it will help drivers make decisions faster than the average human driver could.

It takes about four and a half seconds for a loaded semi with good brakes and dry roads to stop at 55 miles an hour, and with the truck knowing where it is every millisecond it just thinks quicker.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission is also studying the impact of so called driverless trucks on the roadways.

Eleven million trucks use the Ohio Turnpike yearly and the commission says Otto could make the roadway even safer.

“We’re already comfortable with it, with the safety engineer, with a commercial truck driver in the seat," Ohio Turnpike Executive Director Randy Cole told Fox 8 News. “In the self-driving mode as we see more and more of that data, the miles show up-- the reports we get from the company doing the testing showing it's being done safely, then we'll be ready for regular operations."

Other companies are also working on trucks that can drive themselves. What are the advantages to having these trucks on the road? Cole says truck companies stand to lower costs. The brain in Otto can hold a constant speed better than a human cutting fuel costs. The automatic system also adds safety features that could lower insurance costs for shippers.

The state says things look promising, but it will still be a while before these become an everyday sight on the turnpike.