Self-Driving Big Rigs Just Around the Corner?

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Imagine your local freeway packed full of vehicles cruising the posted speed limits, but no one is sitting in the vehicles' driver's seats. Now imagine those vehicles weighing as much as 80,000 pounds. Sound crazy? Not if Freightliner has anything to do with it. Many companies have been experimenting with the idea of automated highways and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, but the missing link to making it work is the need for a huge infrastructure change to U.S. roadways. Self-driving vehicles bypass that option.

Executives from Freightliner and parent company Daimler Trucks just announced they've finished the preliminary testing phases for what could be the first street-legal autonomous commercial big rig. With help from the state of Nevada, the first autonomous vehicle license plate was issued by the governor and delivered to Freightliner executives so company drivers can legally travel Nevada's highways and freeways for further testing.

The test vehicle is called the Inspiration Truck and it uses several front stereo and side cameras (the latter integrated into the mirrors), as well as front-shooting radar along with a sizable computer controller to allow the truck to run in an "auto-pilot" setting in which the driver can monitor but does not need to control steering, brakes, throttle or navigation.

We're told Freightliner's Highway Pilot has undergone more than 10,000 miles of testing on Daimler's proving grounds and on closed courses, but this special Nevada license plate (in fact, the first of its kind) will make the Inspiration Truck the first AV allowed on public roads.

Google, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Audi, TomTom and now Daimler all are exploring self-driving vehicles, but the Freightliner system looks to be the first ready for primetime. All agree that the biggest hurdles have to do with the federal regulation necessary to make sure all states and automakers are working with one set of rules and standards. Of course, since that power sits with the Transportation committee in Congress, nothing serious is likely to happen for quite a while; Daimler sources tell us, for at least 10 to 20 years.

With all that said, you can bet some of this technology, so ideally suited for transporting commercial goods from city to city or across the country, will likely trickle down to the Class 3, 4 and 5 pickup trucks used by smaller companies for hauling and towing. Does this mean we'll be able to surf the internet and do emails while we drive to work? We don't expect that to happen for quite some time.

We'll have more to report after we get a chance to jump into the driver's seat (actually, one of the passenger seats), any day now. 

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I don't want anything that drives itself, much less be around it.

Cool looking rig. I doubt that they could go to fully autonomous until everyone else was also autonomous. The most that they can hope for is enhanced safety features that will take over from the driver. Good luck getting that stuff to work reliably in the mud, dust, snow and ice of the great White North.

I am a over the road owner operator for 20yrs now and I don't see anything like this happening on large scale for a long long time if it ever does. I could see it in city warehouse to warehouse or internal port use if the regulations are passed for it from state and federal regulators.

These systems (in class 8) will not in my life time be used without a driver/operator inside the cab for emergency assistance if needed for a long list of things that can happen that is too long to explain here so the operators will still be needed on that side of the coin (extra training needed) and for fueling or maintenance stops or load inspections.
You can set auto-pilot on a airliner to fly the aircraft from city to city but there are by regulations required to be two pilots on that flight and the same will be if these ever hit the open road.

It's not going to happen anytime soon, but it is amusing to see what the future is being pushed towards.

If they advance this technology far enough where a driver doesn't need to be at the controls I think it could make this industry cheaper and more efficient.

There wouldn't be a rush to get as many miles in in the allowable log book time. Travel for a single operator truck could essentially go around the clock, at a slower pace under computer control, at more efficient pace.

Your not going to replace the operator but it will make the operators life easier and probably more profitable as you could get more miles in a day and loads moved quicker while going slower speeds which nets better MPG's.

Mercedes Benz has already tested and proven that this technology actually works with it's "Future Truck 2025" Concept Semi Tractor Trailer, so I'm quite certain that Freightliner is in it for the long haul with this breakthrough Powertrain Challenge and is looking forward to manufacturing a Big Rig that is going to be a head turner not just on looks, but new Innovative Technology that puts miles ahead from what lies underneath the sheet metal.

Freight haulers of this nature, how many are true dedicated long haulers vs local non highway rigs? Like said, nice to take technology to next level but wondering what percentage of this business it helps? My son a CDL A driver, to much variables in his driving to be of help. Things like unplanned weigh & inspection stations pop up time to time.

@Ray and Lou_BC,
This technology is actually in use here in Australia. It use is confined to a very controlled environment in the mines.

One problem they did have is due to the accuracy these vehicles operate. Damage was caused by the tracking of the vehicles.

Human operated trucks don't follow the same tracks. Heavy trucks will cause lots of road damage if they track the same path all the time.

Here's an interesting link on how the autonomous technology is currently used.

Sorry, again, much of the development for this technology was done in Western Australian mines.

It's been in use here for many years. Tractors have been using gps to guide them through the fields without driver input. John Deere and others offer it.

With such a beautiful rig it would be a shame to not drive it. I bet thieves would love these auto trucks loaded with expensive goods driving with no driver.

The type of vehicle that is driverless will take some time to become reality on highways.

I'd bet divided highways will be where this type of technology will be used. In cities you'd still have humans operate them.

So, your hypothesis isn't quite true. The trucks will incur the same level of risk from theft as current trucks.

Just what we need one more way to put people out of work. Great job not!

Gee, who would have figured that Big Al would have spinned this somehow just so he can say "Australia did it first or better". To bad Caterpillar US has been in the autonomous game in the US since the mid 90s with a big help from government research done by NASA and DARPA.

Funny, Big Al doesn't seem to mind government funding or subsidies to kick start the technologies of autonomous vehicles, but he hates government funding or subsidies that kick starts other new car technologies that challenge diesel fuel.

Just some casual observations...

1) Notice that they're testing this in Nevada, where the vehicle road density is low...I'd like to see this operate in New York City...or during a sudden blizzard.

2) All these years to improve driver ergonomics, and they still can't place the steering wheel in a comfortable position for the driver.

3) Freightliner, the 70's just called, they want the fake wood paneling back, that you're using for the flooring!

Truckers do smell bad, they never shower and they poop their pants.
If anything isn't nailed down or locked up truckers will steal it.
Truckers never think for themselves and can't follow simple directions.
Half of them can't understand and read English.

maybe it would be better without them
It is a low skilled job where anybody can drive a semi truck

Here is the original Mercedes Automated Truck, they saying they are looking at 2025

I think they should start putting wood panel flooring in high end luxury cars like Mercedes, BMW's and Lexuses.

Ugh! I think I just threw up in my mouth. lol!

There still has to be a driver in the truck at all times durning operation. It was all over the national news last night. Article should have included a little more information.

Autonomous vehicles are unlawful.
So this coming out of the corrupt state of Nevada isn't news.

At least the computer can't fall asleep and mow people over.

Its not really IF its going to happen but WHEN and where its going to happen and how long before its "perfected". And o boy wait till the hackers figure out how to mess with this...

Until you reach a construction area and the truck either plows right through it killing workers or just comes to a stop and won't move because the system is confused. You know because the computer system is doing all the work the (former) drivers will be paid less so you have a bunch of illegals sitting the cabs as they will be the only ones who will take the jobs at the low pay rates.

Putting more people out of work is just plain stupid. Just because you can does not mean you should.

You can't keep replacing workers with robots and such as pretty soon there will be no lone left to buy any of the crap that the robots are making because the humans won't have any jobs to make the money to buy the crap.

Hackers can already hack into our current cars. There is a you tube video or a guy who says he can control the steering as well as many other things on the car and he shows in the video of him using his lap top to turn on the vehicles windshield wipers in the service bay.

Sorry but again just because you can does not mean you should.

@BigAl - Caterpillar has videos of full automated mine sites. I saw a TV show about a huge container port in Europe that had autonomous dock trucks. It can be done in the context of a restricted access environment.

Autonomous trucks would be good for interstate long haul driving on the stretches of road that are rural. Driver fatigue is a safety issue on long haul driving and an autonomous truck would be good for this.

I disagree, you will still have to have someone sitting in the drivers seat if the onboard computer crashes to take control as well as take control when the computer gets confused due to construction areas that the computer system can't figure out and just comes to a stop.

Can you imagine just how boring it would be to just sit waiting for that moment you are needed? Hours and hours, mile after mile of just sitting their having to be alert and ready at a moments notice to take control.

Sorry but this technology is a bad idea.

I actually like to drive, but I will have to admit that there are plenty of places in the US where the roads are just long, straight, boring, and have no scenery worth looking at. For places like this, I can see how it would be nice to be able to turn on an autopilot and sleep a bit. When these systems can navigate an old country road that has no lane marking while also avoiding the pot holes and road kill, maybe then it will be ready for prime time.

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