What It's Like Inside the Self-Driving Freightliner

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As we reported earlier, Daimler AG is the first automotive company to be issued an autonomous vehicle license plate. This will allow Daimler to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in Nevada, the license-issuing state. Daimler will do so with a Freightliner Class 8 commercial hauler, capable of carrying 80,000 pounds; it will be loaded with some of the most advanced automotive technology available.

When you think about it, these huge cargo-hauling vehicles typically run in straight lines over long distances on less congested highways, and their drivers need to be as sharp as possible all the time. Having technology that allows them to reduce long-term stress and fatigue while keeping a close eye on the vehicle's gauges and screens seems like it could help get goods transported more efficiently, safer and possibly faster. At least that's the goal, according to Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler's head of commercial vehicles.

For autophiles who recognize Bernhard's name, he was CEO of Mercedes-Benz/AMG almost 20 years ago, moving on to becoming Chrysler's president and chief operations officer when Daimler "merged" with the American car company (do an internet search for Dodge Tomahawk). He eventually left that position to become CEO of Volkswagen AG and made his way back to Mercedes, where he is now a Daimler AG board member overseeing global commercial truck and bus products.

This newest big-rig concept, called the Inspiration Truck, uses state-of-the-art technology, some of which could be put into production in short order and some of which is years away from making it to market. However, the biggest challenges to autonomous trucking are regulatory requirements regarding driver training, law enforcement, accident liability and other safety and legal issues. Several auto companies and interest groups are working with state and federal agencies to bring the issue to the attention of Congressional transportation committees. Congress is where federal rules about autonomous vehicles will be hashed out. But Freightliner wants its new autonomous big rig to push the conversation forward.

Regardless of how soon these vehicles hit the road, they incorporate impressive technologies that we've never seen used before. Sure, much of this technology can be found in a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury sedan, but it has the potential for more impact in the big-rig category.

One of the biggest problems in commercial trucking is driver fatigue and its consequences. Spending hours watching out for wayward passenger cars, traffic issues, route delays or vehicle system fluctuations can be exhausting — much like it might be if an airplane pilot had to fly a plane manually for hours. Freightliner's Highway Pilot system is an advanced monitoring system for the driver, allowing more planning and monitoring to happen inside the truck.

The HP system has many familiar features: adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, electric steering, long- and short-range radar, front and sideview cameras, real-time traffic reporting and sophisticate computers synthesizing all the data to more efficiently keep the powertrain operating at optimum levels.

During a demonstration drive, we sat in the passenger seat of the Inspiration and observed how the system is engaged; operation is as easy as engaging cruise control. The system needs to collect data from several sources — speed, road clarity, lane recognition, traffic, etc. — before it gives the green light for Highway Pilot engagement. Once all those parameters are met, HP engages with the push of a button.

HP is based on cameras that watch lane lines and will steer the big truck along the road or freeway lanes, keeping the engine and transmission running efficiently while preparing for what the road ahead has in store (based on computer GPS data) as far as eight miles down the road. The adaptive cruise system keeps it a safe distance from the vehicle in front, and it will automatically downshift and/or brake as needed based on the actions of the vehicle in front.

The demonstration drive took us on two-lane highways with oncoming and front traffic issues, and onto a major freeway outside Las Vegas. Highway Pilot's predictive software prevented any jerking or swerving in the lane, even when passenger cars cut in front of it. The powertrain controls worked together seamlessly to make operation — acceleration or deceleration — quite smooth. When HP determines that the driver needs to take control, a series of chimes and beeps — as well as a visual countdown — sound to get the driver's attention quickly.

The system is intended to be a Level 3 autonomous system, which means that it will always need to have a monitoring driver, and likely a backup observer when regulations require one. Only Level 4 systems are designed to run without any human involvement from start to finish. Currently only a handful of states and the District of Columbia have laws regulating autonomous vehicles, but that will certainly change as Freightliner tests its Highway Pilot vehicles.

Cars.com photos by Mark Williams


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One of the concerns of these rigs is their near-perfect lane discipline. Because they will always follow the tracking of the roads and lane stripes, they will follow the exact same tire path every time, which would lead to increase road wear (creating deeper "tire troughs" over time than what human-controlled vehicles would do).

The future is so stupid

I mentioned this in the previous article regarding this fantastic vehicle.

The problem arose in our mines when the mines used fully automated vehicles. This was overcome by creating algorithms in the software that will have the vehicles track differently.

@BAfO - problem with American highways is that they're already (badly) rutted in most cases unless the highway is within 2 years of a full rebuild or repave of at least 3 inches deep. Changing the algorithm on highway use could result in handling issues or sideswiping in crosswinds. There's also the issue of how the system finds the lanes in a snowfall situation before it's properly plowed.

I can't help thinking about the "Terminator" movies where the autonomous vehicles turn evil with minds of their own and kill all the humans in the world.

When Mercedes introduced their concept Automated Truck in late 2014, all you could see is this similarly painted to the Freightliner Truck on nice smooth European Motorways. How it would go on rutted secondary roads is anyone's guess
From the WIRED article on the Mercedes introduction


If it's ever implemented in the decades to come, I'd bet they'd still mandate someone behind the wheel as plan B insurance.

Not decades.

It is already viable.

In less than 5 years.

It's funny when any transition occurs in our society involving industrial or work related improvements, it's the middle class jobs that go first.

It's seems the low paid jobs like burger flipping and gardening always remains.

I wonder if society undervalues these types of jobs?

@Big Al - luckily, someone will still have to fix/design/program these systems.

Viable or not, you're not going to see these trucks on long haul interstate transportation anytime in the next decade or two and most certainly not without a operator/monitor on board if it does go.
Unlike private vehicles or company non commercial vehicles these trucks are regulated by FMCSA and that is federal not state or city approval processes. FMCSA would need a congressional hearing (hearings.. IE years in committee hearings and votes before ever going to the floor of both the house and the senate for a vote ).
Something with such implications that effect not only labor but manufacturing, services, and transportation as a whole. That legislation isn't ANYTIME in the near or mid term and I would lay huge bets on that.
We are over 7yrs in and the CNG class 8's represent less than 6% of the US fleet. Things move slow in the transportation industry, always has and probably always will.

It took over 1 1/2 years to change the 34hr two consecutive 12am-5am reset rule that went into effect mid 2013 and it nearly went down in the final negotiations last year in the budget bill. If you think change on this level would be authorized in the next decade I have ocean front in Kansas for sell.

I hate daimler. First they rape Chrysler now they want me unemployed. Driver fatigue is not our biggest problem, dumbass 4 wheelers are. Long distances on sparse highways? Espoused by someone who has never driven a truck. While the truck drives itself we can spend the time planning, what? Do I log it as on duty, not driving? Do I have to stop after 11 hours of sitting behind the wheel? Will I still need a 30 minute break before 8 hours on? Looks like idiocy to me

There are already at least four reports of accidents in California involving the 50 self driving cars they are testing.

That is not a very good stat.

This is a very bad idea.

No wait: Google admits self-driving cars involved in 11 minor accidents.

More than likely there are far more that have been covered up.

Sad Sack - fully autonomous will only work if everyone else is fully autonomous.

I suspect that we will see some safety functions being taken over by autonomous systems. Tailgating is the most obvious low hanging fruit for autonomous systems.

autonomous will turn against us sooner than later

autonomous vehicles will turn against us sooner than later

Looks like "Maximum Overdrive" is no longer fiction once Skynet becomes aware!

See already a computer has messed up and posted my remark 4 times. I can't wait until they control a 80,000 lb rig moving 70 mph.

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