Self-driving cars might be grabbing all the headlines, but it seems like self-driving trucks might hit the road first. At the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) showed off its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, which has been officially licensed to operate on public highways in the state of Nevada. The autonomous hauler allows the driver to hand over full control to the onboard computer under proper traffic and environmental conditions.
Self-driving passenger cars have been long in coming. Part of the reason is that cars are designed to go almost anywhere, from freeways to crowded city streets. Even human drivers have difficulty dealing with everything that a normal trip can throw at them and expecting a computer to do it is about as ambitious as you can get. On the other hand, specialized freight haulers spend most of their time on highways and freeways, so building one that can take over most of the tedious long-haul driving and letting the human do the side streets and backing up to the loading bay seems like a logical trade off.
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That seems to be the thinking behind DTNA's design philosophy at the Tuesday evening unveiling ceremony. This was the culmination of a series of events during the day when Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval put a license plate on the Frieghtliner Inspiration, granting it legal status to operate in the state, then climbing aboard for the first drive. Though the Inspiration is billed as self-driving, a human was at the wheel at all times.
The basic idea behind the Inspiration is for the autonomous system to control the truck when on highways, while the driver deals with exits, local roads, and freight yards. According to DTNA, the Inspiration can take over many of the driving functions, such as staying in a designated lane, keeping station at a safe distance from another vehicle, maintaining a legal speed, braking safely to a halt when needed, and being able to judge when to hand back control to the driver.
This may make the Inspiration sound like a rolling lab, but DTNA says that its systems are based on some of the core autonomous vehicle systems already installed in the series production Freightliner Cascadia Evolution. Its Highway Pilot uses a combination of cameras and radar for lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking, steering, and general road keeping.
One advantage of big rigs is that the tractor cabins usually have plenty of room. Many long-haul versions even have sleeping quarters. This gave the designers plenty of scope for fitting in controls and video displays that replace the exterior mirrors. According to DTNA, this reduces blind spots and cuts down wind drag for a 1.5 percent increase in fuel efficiency. In addition, the interface can help drivers with logistics and route planning.
"Freightliner Trucks does more than any other commercial truck manufacturer to integrate the truck, the driver and the business," says Richard Howard, Senior Vice President, Sales & Marketing, DTNA. "The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a case in point because it is not a driverless truck — the driver is a key part of a collaborative vehicle system. With the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, drivers can optimize their time on the road while also handling other important logistical tasks, from scheduling to routing. The autonomous vehicle technology not only contributes to improved safety and efficiency, but allows for improved communication through connectivity and integration."
The video below introduces the Freightliner Inspiration.