What you need to know: Freightliner's Autonomous Vehicle

By: Matt Wood, Video by: Daimler Trucks


Freightliner has put the world’s first road registered autonomous truck onto American highways

 

I found myself standing beside the Hoover Dam on the edge of the American state of Nevada.

A record-breaking projection and light show played across the towering dam wall that has for so long been a symbol of American engineering prowess.

And when it was all over, a sci-fi lit Freightliner Cascadia AV, dubbed the Inspiration Truck, rumbled across the wall of the dam that spans two states.

It was a spectacular display and, if the hype is to be believed, it symbolised the dawning of a new trucking age.

Daimler signaled its intent last year when it showed a Mercedes-Benz Actros driving itself down a stretch of closed highway in Germany.

But this Freightliner has taken the concept a big step further. This truck will be able to drive itself on public roads in the state of Nevada as a road registered vehicle.

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What are AVs?

AVs have been a hot topic in North America and Europe over the past few years.

The Google AV gave the mainstream public a glimpse of an AV world and over the water in Australia we looked on in awe, and maybe just a little fear.

But it’s important to note there are four recognised levels of vehicle automation at this point in time. Level one has been with us a while and encompasses vehicles that have anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control (ESC).

Level two vehicles have systems that can intervene in the driving of the vehicle such as adaptive cruise control (ACC).

Level three is an AV that can drive and steer itself but still requires a driver to be in the driver’s seat. And level four is the one that everybody thinks of when you talk about AVs, a fully automated driverless truck.

However, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) boss Martin Daum says DTNA has no interest in pursuing level four.

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Ground-breaking hardware?

Regardless of how much of the rhetoric you want to swallow, this really is a quantum leap. But the funny thing is that the technology involved has been around for a long time.

This isn’t some sort of ground-breaking new truck in terms of hardware. While it seems like so much sci-fi it’s really just the logical realisation and evolution of some features that have been around for quite a while, namely ACC and lane departure warning.

The stereo cameras traditionally used to detect the white lines for lane departure actually talk to an electronically controlled steering box. The information gathered by the cameras is used to keep the vehicle in its lane. Out front two radar beams look for both distant objects and objects that may enter the path of the vehicle.

If the traffic slows out front, the truck will slow, if it stops the truck will stop.

The quantum leap really is it’s now allowed to operate in the public domain as a registered vehicle. Many assumed this would have happened in Europe rather than America first. But the technology needed a state or country willing to give the concept a go without burying it in red tape.

Nevada ticked the boxes with good roads, a lot of freeway and pretty good weather.

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Driverless vehicle?

Daimler is certainly not the only manufacturer to have the vital ingredients of a self-driving truck. I suspect there’s probably been a bit of a Mexican stand-off among the manufacturers to see who would be brave enough to really put it to the test in the public domain.

DTNA’s Daum was emphatic that "this is not a driverless truck". And he is adamant a truck needs a driver. "The human brain is still the best computer," he says.

In fact, the system on board the Inspiration Cascadia is more autopilot than artificial intelligence. The driver is still required to be seated at the wheel and Daum says future vehicles are likely to be fitted with sensors to ensure the driver doesn’t leave the seat.

The system at this stage is far from perfect. Rain, ice, snow and poor lane markings all affect the autonomous system’s performance.

However, there’s probably a fair argument that you probably shouldn’t be using the system in bad weather or on bad roads anyway.

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Regulations needed?

A common argument raised when talking about AVs revolves around who is ultimately responsible if an AV does drive through a kindergarten? Does Daimler have any liability in the case of an accident?

By sticking to level three automation much of the decision-making is still left to the driver who would ultimately be responsible for the vehicle. Conventional wisdom at this point in time says that using cruise control in bad weather or in heavy traffic is not a great idea in a heavy vehicle.

So, it could be argued that the driver still holds the can. Daum, however, does concede that there needs to be more legislation in place around some of these issues. He is confident these issues will be resolved before mass production saying: "This equipment excels drivers."

Director of compliance and corporate affairs for DTNA is Sean Waters who agrees with Daum saying that in future there needs to be a global regulatory standard for AVs

"Regulation needs to catch up to innovation," he adds.

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How is it powered?

The Inspiration Truck itself is a Freightliner Cascadia Evolution i.

The i stands for integrated driveline meaning that it rolls on Detroit axles, is powered by a Detroit engine and uses a 12-speed Detroit automated transmission.

The reality is that much of this hardware has come to Freightliner via Mercedes-Benz giving the company wider scope than the traditional Cummins/Detroit/Eaton options. The Cascadia currently dominates the Class 8 (heavy-duty) segment of the American truck market.

Daum stresses that the company is pursuing "vehicle integration not vertical integration". This really is the key to the Inspiration Truck: an integrated driveline with integrated technologies that ensures all components are speaking the same language.

With incoming greenhouse gas emissions laws and mandated fuel economy for Class 8 tractors, integration is going to play a key role in squeezing every last bit of economy out of these machines.

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What is it like on the road?

Inside the dashboard of this truck uses a thin-film transistor (TFT) instrument display that replaces the normal factory gauges.

Mounted to one side is a tablet device that the driver can use while the truck is in AV mode. Other than a few spruced up panels the rest is all factory Cascadia.

There’s nothing startling about the Inspiration Truck until you get out onto the open road, it just does its thing.

But soon the instrument display lets you know that the Highway Pilot is available and from there it’s just a matter of hitting a button on the steering wheel to let the truck take over.

That’s where it gets freaky. Old mate in the driver’s seat just sat there chatting with his feet off the pedals and his hands in his lap as the prime mover and trailer rolled through the freeway traffic autonomously.

Every part of my being wanted to yell at him to put his bloody hands back on the wheel.

But the Freightliner behaved just as it was meant to do, keeping pace with the traffic and keeping between the lines.

If the system loses lane markings, it will sound an audio visual alert and hand control back to the driver.

DTNA used the occasion to show that the driver can use their tablet device to access Freightliner’s virtual technician while on the move and even book maintenance while en route.

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What is next?

AV trials will continue in Nevada in the near future and all being well the technology may start to be trialed in other American states.

Interestingly platooning is now also on the agenda. The only current obstacle to overcome is inter-vehicle communication.

Given the massive size of some American fleets, it’s not hard to visualise a platooning line of trucks from the same company slip- streaming each other until they reach their designated freeway exit.

While it may be full steam ahead for Freightliner and AV trials in the United States, it will be a long time before we see the system on Australian shores.

The lack of political focus on transport, a lack of legislation around AVs and just plain old crap roads will stymie heavy AVs in Australia for a while yet.

That said it’s not hard to picture trucks running up and down the Hume Highway on autopilot. Who knows? Truck cabs on Sesame Street may one day be lit by the glow of drivers eBaying, tweeting and Facebooking through the night.

 

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