To date, most self-driving vehicle innovation and development has focused on perfecting self-driving or semi-autonomous technologies for passenger vehicles, paving the way to a not-too-distant future where the daily work commute can be more than simply staring at the taillights of the car in front of you.
Yet while the lure of beating traffic jam boredom by letting your car drive itself might be finding increasing popularity among everyday consumers, autonomous driving technology has a far larger killer app for the world of business and industry: self-driving trucks.
With professional truckers regularly clocking up to 70 hours a week and tough regulations prohibiting them from spending more than 11 hours a day driving (14 hours per day working in total), being a trucker in modern-day America is one of the deadliest and lowest-paid jobs there is. Driver fatigue is commonplace, as are the associated fatigue-induced accidents. For cash-strapped hauliers both independent and corporate, those accidents cost time, money and future business. For the drivers themselves, the stresses and strains of long hours and life on the road can cost them their very lives.
The truck-making arm of German automaker Daimler thinks autonomous driving technology can change the lives of truck drivers forever, and has just been issued the world’s first autonomous truck license to prove that fact on the roads of Nevada.
Last year, the firm, demonstrated autonomous truck technology for the first time by letting its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 concept vehicle drive itself under supervision along a closed section of the A14 Autobahn with no other vehicles on it near to the city of Magdeburg, Germany. Prior to that, its autonomous vehicle technology had been proved in what Daimler terms the ‘Marathon Run: a 10,000 mile test drive on a closed test circuit to ensure the vehicle was ready for public highway testing.
But the granting of the specially-designed Nevada Licence plates ∞AU 010 and ∞AU 011 — the ∞AU prefix denoting a vehicle’s autonomous drive capabilities — by the Nevada DMV means that the truckmaker can now test and refine its autonomous truck technology for future production.
Joining the first public highway test along U.S. highway 15 in Las Vegas on Tuesday were Nevada State Governor Brian Sandoval and Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the Daimler AG board responsible for trucks and busses. Riding in one of two specially-built self-driving Freightliner Inspiration trucks, the pair were able to experience semi-autonomous operation first hand.
Based on the current U.S.-market Freightliner Cascadia Evolution, the Freightliner Inspiration Trucks are fitted with front radars and a stereo camera up front, as well as adaptive cruise control and other advanced safety features found in many Mercedes-Benz vehicles — like blind spot detection and autonomous braking. Combined with an on-board computer system, the self-driving trucks can keep themselves centred correctly in the lane on the highway and respond to changing traffic situations as required, leaving the driver free to carry out other duties or rest.
“Our Freightliner Inspiration Truck is the world´s first autonomous commercial vehicle to be licensed for road use,” said Dr. Bernhard of the milestone. “Our achievement here underlines yet again our role as a technological pioneer and demonstrates our consistent dedication to develop the technology for autonomous long-distance driving to series production standard. I am proud of this extra-ordinary achievement by the Daimler Trucks team.”
“Nevada is proud to be making transportation history today by hosting the first U.S. public highway drive for a licensed autonomous commercial truck. The application of this innovative technology to one of America’s most important industries will have a lasting impact on our state and help shape the New Nevada economy,” said Gov. Sandoval. “The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has been closely monitoring the advancements being made in autonomous vehicle development and reviewed DTNA’s safety, testing and training plans before granting permission for this demonstration of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck.”
Of course, as well as helping to reduce driver fatigue, autonomous trucks have a number of other advantages over non-automotive ones. In addition to improving fuel efficiency, autonomous trucks will also be capable of reporting their positions back to customers or fleet operators far more conveniently than existing tracking methods, making it easier and simpler for customers to predict when their shipments will arrive. Autonomous trucks could even use Internet-connected technologies to pass on details to other nearby autonomous vehicles concerning road conditions or traffic problems.
Like autonomous passenger vehicles being developed by many major automakers, the underlying technical foundation for Daimler’s self-driving trucks is already easily achievable. In the same vein however, allowing self-driving or semi-autonomous trucks on the public highway on a national scale will be a long and fraught process involving many hours of legal and ethical challenges over who ultimately is responsible should anything go wrong.
That fear, and any backlash that comes from it, could mean fully autonomous vehicles will be some time away for many years to come.
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