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Self-Driving Semi Truck Barrels Down Colorado’s Front Range To Deliver Beer

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Courtesy of Otto
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The first self-driving semi truck trip delivered beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

In a first-of-its-kind beer run, a self-driving semi truck has successfully long-hauled booze across Colorado’s Front Range.

Beyond the technological achievement, the trip brings up big questions about the future of transportation and the trucking industry’s viability — not just in Colorado, but around the world.

Otto, a self-driving truck service and a subsidiary of Uber, announced the delivery of about 45,000 cans of Budweiser from Anheuser-Busch’s production facility north of Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.  

Both Otto and Anheuser-Busch proudly shared the details of the truck’s journey along I-25 in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qb0Kzb3haK8

In the video, an Otto truck driver flips a switch, unbuckles his seatbelt, leaves the driver’s seat and monitors the truck’s journey from the sleeper cab. The truck’s steering wheel twitches and turns autonomously to keep the truck in its lane as it barrels down the two-lane highway.

For years, transportation experts have said self-driving technology would be adopted by long haul trucking companies; highways are easier to navigate, unlike busy, cramped city streets. It’s simply easier to turn autopilot on during long stretches of interstate highway surrounded by corn fields.

What’s unclear is whether self-driving technology will replace the truck driver all together. In states across the country, truck driving is the most common job. In 2014, about 3.1 million people worked as either heavy tractor trailer or delivery drivers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Full adoption of self-driving trucks, sans driver, could bring an economic upheaval to the trucking industry.

In an interview with Reuters, Otto’s co-founder Lior Ron said that after its success with Anheuser-Busch the company plans to reach out to more business partners, as well as independent drivers.

An Otto blog post notes that current truck drivers might see some utility in equipping their trucks with the self-driving technology. “With an Otto-equipped vehicle, truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them,” the post notes.

Colorado’s role as the first state to try autonomous trucks wasn’t by accident. The state was involved in the self-driving semi’s maiden voyage, using state patrol to monitor the trip. State officials continue to pitch Colorado not only as business-friendly, but open to innovative, disruptive technologies too.

As Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, says, "We are open to any technology solution, and we want the private sector to know that Colorado is open for business.”

Reporter Jackie Fortier contributed to this report. 

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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