Otto’s robot trucks face questions about legality in California

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Do Otto’s trucks drive themselves or not?

Otto, started by some veterans of Google’s self-driving car project, makes a kit to retrofit commercial tractor-trailers for autonomy. The San Francisco startup owned by Uber orchestrated and publicized an autonomous trip by a truck hauling Budweiser in Colorado in October. In August, shortly after Uber bought it for $680 million, it invited reporters and photographers on short test drives in San Francisco, during which the licensed driver behind the wheel said Otto’s Volvo VNL 780 tractor cab drove itself some of the time.

But Otto told the California Department of Motor Vehicles and California Highway Patrol that its trucks “are not capable of operating in autonomous mode in California,” according to a DMV spokeswoman.

Now in the wake of a complaint filed by Consumer Watchdog, the DMV said it is looking into the issue. Consumer Watchdog provided a six-page report from Scott Ryvola, Otto software quality manager, that describes how test drivers on California roads press a dashboard button “to engage the self-driving system,” while remaining “extremely attentive and ready to take back full control whenever necessary.”

Consumer Watchdog has taken up a crusade against self driving, claiming that the technology is not safe — even though the entire industry operates on the widely held assumption that robot cars will help prevent some of the 1.3 million annual deaths nationwide in traffic accidents.

The Santa Monica nonprofit group went after Uber during the ride-hailing company’s brief attempt to test its autonomous vehicles with passengers in San Francisco in December. That test ended within a week after the DMV revoked the cars’ registrations because Uber declined to obtain a DMV permit for testing autonomous cars. Uber said its cars were exempt because they needed a driver at the wheel to function.

California’s self-driving regulations cover only those vehicles with a gross weight up to 10,000 pounds. Vehicles over that weight “shall not be approved for testing as autonomous vehicles on public roads,” the DMV rules say. Tractor cabs typically weigh 15,000 pounds or more, even without trailers. The DMV said it will work on regulations for self-driving commercial vehicles in the future.

Otto did not respond to a request for comment. In December, it said that in California, drivers are always in control of its trucks while the technology provides “driver-assist functionality.”

That’s different than its description of the beer run, though that was in another state. “By using cameras, radar and lidar sensors mounted on the vehicle to ‘see’ the road, Otto’s system controlled the acceleration, braking and steering of the truck to carry the beer exit-to-exit without any human intervention,” Otto wrote in a blog post. “In fact, our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”

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