Uber is acquiring Otto, a startup that’s been working on developing self-driving trucks for an undisclosed sum. The company’s co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, is a former Googler who has been working on autonomous driving for years. He’ll head up Uber’s entire self-driving division — both Otto’s self-driving truck efforts and Uber’s own fast-growing autonomous division — reporting directly to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
The news comes as Uber announces a public pilot program that will see its autonomous vehicles (with minders sitting in the front seat in case something goes wrong) picking up real passengers in Pittsburgh beginning later this month.
Uber has been rapidly expanding its self-driving division, opening an Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh stocked with 50 robotics engineers poached from Carnegie Mellon University’s own self-driving lab, as well as researchers from a number of other companies.
Otto was founded earlier this year by former employees from Google, Apple, Tesla, Cruise Automation, and others. Otto’s goal was to turn commercial trucks into self-driving freight haulers. Instead of building its own self-driving trucks, the company was looking to build hardware kits for existing truck models.
Levandowski was one of the original members of Google’s self-driving team and gives Uber a veteran leader for its autonomous car development.
Otto’s technology will eventually be used to start a cargo service for long-haul trucking, claims Bloomberg. It will be designed to work with Uber’s current intracity delivery services. It’s not clear if Uber plans to compete with package delivery firms like UPS and FedEx, but it’s easy to see how that sort of program could complement the company’s other offerings.
In its own blog post, Otto said that its platform is designed to allow truck drivers to rest while the truck is still moving as well as creating a freight network to link drivers and shippers in a way that is financially beneficial for everyone.
In a blog post announcing the Otto acquisition, Kalanick said it will work on self-driving technology across three sectors: personal transportation, delivery, and trucking, leveraging both its ongoing robotics research and the "data and intelligence that comes from doing 1.2 billion miles on the road every month."
He also reiterated the safety aspects of autonomous driving, likely in an attempt to head off potential criticisms of Uber’s recently announced public self-driving pilot program in Pittsburgh. "In the US, traffic accidents are a leading cause of death for people under 25," Kalanick wrote. "This is a tragedy that self-driving technology can help solve.