It hasn’t been more than a month since I did a report on the autonomously driven Delphi Audi that drove from coast to coast without incident, and already truck manufacturer Daimler/Freightliner is ready to rock with a self-driving semi. The heavyset cargo carrier hit the desert highway on May 5 among throngs of onlookers, politicians, and members of the media. This kind of publicity stunt is the first of its kind and will hopefully show the world that “trucker’s fatigue” is about to be a thing of the past.
The governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, was on hand to take the world’s first autonomous tractor trailer cruise near Las Vegas with Wolfgang Bernhard, who is the man behind these self-driving Daimler trucks. This was all done in order to garner attention for Daimler’s goal to make transport trucks “safer, more efficient, and more networked.” In July, Daimler Trucks provided the world’s first demonstration of an autonomous truck in action when the Mercedes-Benz “Future Truck 2025″ drove along a section of the A14 autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany.
With members of the media and the government closely watching, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck began its maiden voyage just outside of Las Vegas. The truck uses what Daimler likes to call “Highway Pilot Technology,” which features a front radar and a stereo camera that work with assistance systems like Adaptive Cruise Control to allow licensing on public roads in Nevada. The report stated that to guarantee that the trip remained “hiccup-free,” Daimler first tested the system in Germany by covering more than 10,000 miles on a closed test circuit before approving the system’s use here in America.
This could be a real game changer, because in 2012, trucks transported around 70% of all freight tonnage in the United States (the equivalent of 9.4 billion tons of freight). According to Daimler’s release, road freight transport is expected to triple globally before the year 2050. In response to these rapidly increasing trends, Daimler’s autonomous trucks hope to provide equilibrium between economic and environmental needs, all while reducing traffic accidents. But not everyone is jumping for joy over the idea of self-driving transport trucks. There are some well-founded concerns behind these space-age developments, and we continue to speculate as to what this latest autonomous development means for the trucking industry as a whole.
When I wrote an article a month back about futuristic super trucks, I spoke of efficiency, design, and environmental stewardship. A few years back, big-rig makers were tasked by the U.S. government to come up with trucks that will make the world of transit a more efficient and economical option for future generations. Freightliner accepted this challenge, and then proceeded to humiliate the competition by releasing a semi called the SuperTruck that shattered previous records for fuel efficiency. Now, it looks like the company has set yet another world record after cruising legally across the Nevada desert in the “Inspiration.”
But truckers are uneasy, because the next logical step in the evolution of an autonomous truck is a rig that does not require a pilot. This would spell disaster for truck drivers the world over, as the dependence on their expertise would be eliminated almost entirely. There also are grumblings about safety and the security of other vehicles around one of these self-driving rigs.
This isn’t just some autonomously driven Smart car, but a big-ass eighteen wheeler, with the ability to ruin any vehicle unfortunate enough to get in its way. It also has the ability to make its own decisions, avoid accidents, and choose routing methods. But who gets the blame when a tire blows and the self-driving truck causes an accident? Who is labeled liable since no one was technically driving at the time of the incident?
Daimler is confident that its design will not encounter this kind of issue. The manufacturer says this truck is designed to eliminate driver fatigue, and that its “Detroit Connect” telematics system will determine the cause behind fault messages and offer solutions to the driver in real time. This is accomplished via a report that is transmitted to the Detroit Customer Service Center where the data is then analyzed and recommended corrective measures are then emailed back to the driver. Detroit Connect can also reportedly reduce repair costs and eliminate unforeseen issues even before they occur.
The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is the third evolutionary stage of Daimler’s strategy for the United States, with more steps to follow as technologies and alternative fuel sources continue to come into reality. Daimler isn’t wasting any time either, as Bernhard announced Wednesday that once the Nevada drive was complete, the company would begin to “test the Highway Pilot technology on public roads in Germany” and that “preparations are already under way.” But don’t get too excited just yet, because while the government has approved the testing of these technological advancements in Nevada, it is still years away from approving its use in commuter cars.
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