LAS VEGAS — A day after the glitz and glamour of the Hoover Dam premier of Freightliner’s Inspiration, the world’s first autonomous truck licensed to drive on public highways, the company gave members of the press more detailed information and a chance to ride in the vehicle.
First, however, a couple of myths needed to be dealt with.
In an opening session that spelled out the day’s events, Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO Martin Daum said that the company has no intention of creating trucks that operate without drivers. "The human brain is still the best computer money can buy," he said. “We want to give the driver a tool that enhances his experience exponentially.”
In a breakout session that followed soon after, Daimler AG Head of Advanced Engineering Martin Zielinger began, “Let’s deal with myth number one. Autonomous trucks are not driverless trucks.”
Martin explained that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines five levels of vehicle automation. No automation, with the driver in total control of the vehicle, is ranked zero. Level one involves assist systems such as anti-lock braking or electronic stability control that assist in performing specific functions while leaving the driver in total control. The next level, two, combines multiple functions to take some control from the driver. An example of level two automation might combine adaptive cruise control with a lane departure device.
Freightliner’s Inspiration model attains NHTSA’s level three status, or limited self-driving automation because it allows the driver to cede full control of the vehicle under certain highway conditions while remaining available to resume control as needed.
A level four vehicle is entirely self-driving and may not even be manned.
Myth number two, according to Daimler Chief Engineer of Product Validation Al Pearson, is that we won’t see autonomous vehicles on the road for another decade or two. “AV (Autonomous Vehicle) tech will be evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he explained. “Most of the building blocks are already in place.”
Pearson described currently-available technologies like adaptive cruise control that responds to anticipated changes in terrain, collision mitigation systems that can engage the engine brake and activate service brakes if another vehicle is too close ahead, lane departure systems and others.
“It’s only a matter of coordinating all the separate systems,” he said.
After the breakout session, it was out to the parking lot of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a demonstration. To the unplanned roaring accompaniment of fighter jets from Nellis Air Force Base overhead, driver Christian Urban, director of E/E integration for DTNA, piloted the Inspiration out of the lot and onto the highway.
As he drove, he explained that the driver engages the “Highway Pilot” in a way similar to engaging the more familiar cruise control, with controls mounted on the steering wheel. A radar unit scans the road ahead and a stereo video camera also feeds information to the system, which identifies painted highway lines and reflectors to determine lane position.
When a suitable stretch of highway is reached, meaning that there are no upcoming turns, exits, or maneuvers the driver must handle manually, the dash display indicates that the Highway Pilot is available for use. At a speed of about 35 mph, Urban pressed a button and raised his hands from the wheel; the truck was now driving itself.
Urban pointed out a place ahead where the lanes shifted to the left, making a sort of mini S-curve. The Inspiration steered slightly left and then right, following the road contours exactly.
As the truck approached an interchange where we would access I-15, a warning on the dash signaled Urban to resume control of the Inspiration, indicating how many seconds remained until the system disengaged itself.
Urban explained that the system could be disengaged by pressing a button, taking hold of the steering wheel, or depressing the brake pedal, any of which immediately returned control to the driver.
The truck took over again on the Interstate, yielding to the driver just before exiting to the road that lead back to the Speedway. The ride was smooth and the Highway Pilot maintained a safe distance behind the vehicle ahead.
Urban explained that lane changes are the driver’s responsibility. When overtaking a slower vehicle, the Inspiration will adjust speed to remain a safe distance behind, but will not change lanes to pass.
Another feature of automation, however, won’t keep a safe following distance. The concept of “platooning,” connecting the systems of two or more vehicles and having those behind the front vehicle stay close to take advantage of aerodynamic forces to save fuel, a concept NASCAR fans know as “drafting,” offers significant fuel savings. The dangers of reduced visibility and driver reaction times are eliminated, since all vehicles in the line respond to what the first one “sees.”
After a day of breakout sessions and test rides, it was clear that the Inspiration is an example of the technology that will soon dominate the trucking industry. For that to happen, however, some regulations need to be changed and some new ones crafted as governments decide what future role automation will play in transportation.
In the meantime, after a pre-trip inspection and a short drive to the Interstate, the driver may soon be able to relax while the truck controls itself on those long, boring stretches of asphalt.
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