Proponents of driverless cars — led by Google's autonomous driving team — argue that the technology could make cars both safer and more efficient.
Two former Google officials, however, believe that applying those systems to semi-trucks could help produce those results more quickly than passenger vehicles.
Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron formerly worked for the tech giant's autonomous car and mapping divisions, respectively, but departed to form Otto earlier this year.
The company now counts 41 employees — including veterans of Google, Apple and Tesla Motors — who retrofit semi-trucks with autonomous systems. Three Volvo semis equipped with autonomous technology have logged more than 10,000 test miles to date, officials said.
"It’s time to rethink the way we move goods on the road," the company wrote in a blog post introducing itself.
Otto officials noted that trucks are a particularly inviting target for the benefits of autonomous driving.
Although they account for 1 percent of vehicles and about 6 percent of miles driven in the U.S., trucks are responsible for nearly 10 percent of driving fatalities and create 28 percent of road-based pollution.
In addition, absorbing the large cost of self-driving sensors and cameras would likely be easier for a $150,000 semi-truck than for a $30,000 sedan.
Otto's founders believe that with their systems, long-haul truckers could effectively put their vehicles in autopilot on large highways and catch up on sleep while keeping their cargo en route to its destination.
Details on the systems' pricing and availability were not disclosed, but the company initially wants to focus on truckers that own their own semis. Eventually, trucking companies could purchase the systems outright or subscribe to an Otto autonomous service.
Volvo, other automakers and rival startups are also working on similar technology, and the same regulatory hiccups and safety worries that affect autonomous cars also appear likely to impact self-driving big rigs.
The economics of widespread self-driving semis are also complicated. Otto noted that the country already faces a shortage of the truckers that move 70 percent of the country's cargo.
Critics, however, cautioned that the technology could have grave consequences for the trucking industry, which employs one in 15 Americans — including 3 million drivers — and sustains countless small and rural communities.
“It will take a very long time to transition three million people. However, it’s also the nature of progress,” Levandowski told The New York Times. "There used to be elevator operators in New York City and there are not anymore.”