SAN FRANCISCO. Rather than focusing on futuristic self-driving technology, the first commercial product from Pronto.ai, the start-up company co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, is meant to provide benefits to drivers today.
“The idea is to make the job of the truck driver more relaxed, easier and safer,” Levandowski said of “Copilot,” a camera-based system that offers lane-keeping and stop-and-go assistance.
Pronto invited Fleet Owner to the company’s headquarters in San Francisco for an exclusive look at the Level 2 automated technology that controls braking, throttling and steering. The system is “ready to be installed now, as opposed to working on Level 4 technology that will be ready in who knows how many years from now,” Levandowski explained.
The 17-mile ride along Interstate 280 demonstrated how a Peterbilt Class 8 tractor automatically stayed in the center of the lane after the Copilot system was activated with the touch of a button. That included when traveling through a dark tunnel.
The driver was focused on the road, though technically his hands were not physically touching the steering wheel at all times. It remained his responsibility to change lanes and exit the highway.
Copilot is capable of bringing the truck to a complete stop, and automatically accelerating up to highway speeds. That relieves some of the stress of navigating through traffic jams.
Levandowski said the truckers who have tested the system are reporting being more relaxed behind the wheel, and have the ability to drive longer stretches without experiencing pain.
While these features are already offered on high-end passenger vehicles, it has been “completely lacking from commercial trucking where we think it doesn’t just add comfort for gadget enthusiasts but actually helps you do your job more effectively,” said Ognen Stojanovski, co-founder and chief operating officer of Pronto.
Stojanovski said there are several dozen customers thus far for the technology that costs about $5,000 a piece. He added specific customer announcements could come as soon as this summer.
Levandowski is a veteran of the autonomous vehicle space, having first gained notoriety for building a driverless motorcycle. He worked on Google’s self-driving car project, known as Waymo, and then co-founded Otto, the company acquired by Uber famous for its autonomous beer delivery in Colorado.
He departed Otto after a lawsuit by Waymo involving stolen trade secrets. The companies eventually settled the lawsuit.
Last December, Pronto burst on the scene after Levandowski posted a video of an autonomous, cross-country trip he took in a Toyota Prius. After two failed attempts, he traveled from San Francisco to New York, taking control only to refuel or stop the car.
The Prius included advanced technologies, giving the car routing capabilities and the ability to exit the highway at specific locations to refuel and allow for rest.
Levandowski said that milestone was important for validating the technology and camera-only system, but this functionality is not part of the Copilot offering. In the beginning, the only optional add-on is an inward facing driver monitoring system.
While additional functionality could be added in the future, the Pronto leadership team repeatedly emphasized the short-term goal of providing a more simplistic safety system for drivers at an affordable price.
“This is a great way to experience the technology without having to buy new trucks,” said Levandowski.
Copilot can be retrofitted on just about any truck with an automatic or automated manual transmission. It takes one day to install the system, which includes three cameras installed on the windshield, a computer tucked out of sight in the sleeper and a drive-by-wire system that allows the technology to control the truck.
Looking ahead, they envisioned a scenario where additional cost savings could be achieved by working with equipment manufacturers to have system built into new trucks at the factory. For the time being, however, it’s about delivering Copilot to customers.
Levandowski is well aware of the role he has played in creating what may turn out to be unrealistic expectations for highly automated trucks.
“I own up to my role in creating the excitement for this – unduly so,” Levandowski said. “I was overeager and we’ve now really sobered up to the reality of what the technology can and can’t do."
While the day will come when some vehicles are able to travel without a driver, it has “turned out to be a much, much more complicated problem than almost everybody has expected," he added.
Fleet Owner’s test drive with Pronto coincidently took place the same day Waymo announced on Twitter is planned to resume testing of its self-driving trucks on highways in the Phoenix area.
A Waymo spokesman told CBS News the earlier testing was just to gather initial information, but the company is now at a more advanced stage.
Waymo already conducts testing of self-driving minivans. Two drivers will be in each of the self-driving trucks.
Uber has also recently resumed testing of self-driving vehicles. It paused for nine months last year after a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a Phoenix pedestrian, the first death caused by an autonomous vehicle.
In a recent blog post, Robbie Miller, Pronto’s chief safety officer, expressed concern that some companies involved in self-driving vehicles could be taking safety risks by focusing on total miles driven.
During the interview with Fleet Owner, he cautioned companies against “driving miles for the sake of driving miles," potentially helping to inflate their miles-per-disengagement statistics.
Instead, companies should strive to prove its systems are safer than human drivers through real world and/or high-value miles and be open to unannounced safety audits, Miller suggested.