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If you’re planning to visit Nevada this summer, you may be in for a bit of shock, especially if you encounter one of these futuristic-looking 18-wheelers on the highway.
It might look just like an ordinary lorry at first glance, but on further inspection you might notice that the man behind the wheel has his head buried in the latest edition of USA Today, whilst the vehicle appears to be steering itself!
It’s an image that looks like it’s taken from the set of the next Transformers movie, but this self-driving truck is very real. In fact it is one of a pair of Freightliner Inspiration driverless trucks, developed by innovative vehicle giant Daimler, which have been recently given the go-ahead by the state of Nevada for testing on its public highways.
How does it work? The lorries use a combination of technologies including GPS, radar, cameras and sensors to continually scan the area around the vehicles, enabling them to determine their position on the road and their proximity to other road users.
The information collected is processed in a fraction of a second and used to make adjustments to the steering, acceleration and braking, in a way that Daimler claims minimises fuel consumption, eliminates drag and reduces the risk of collisions.
Perhaps the most intelligent feature is what the designers refer to as “Highway Platooning”, where the vehicles automatically manoeuvre behind one another to minimise air resistance, whilst maintaining a safe breaking distance. It is claimed that this feature can enable fuel savings of up to 6%. See below video
Lorry drivers will be pleased to hear that the technology used by the Freightliners has been designed to assist the driver rather than replace them entirely.
The driverless technology has been developed for use on motorways and is similar to an auto-pilot feature on an aircraft. However, it is currently incapable of tackling city streets and more complex roads autonomously, so human drivers are required to take control of the vehicles in between long straight stretches of road.
Although the trucks do feature failsafe systems to bring them to a halt should something go wrong, at the moment a driver must be present at all times. If the vehicles become outmatched by the conditions they are presented with, they will attempt to hand over controls to the driver and if he/she does not respond, the lorry will decelerate to an eventual stop. Another benefit of this auto-pilot feature is that the driver’s attention is freed up, so they are able to relax, check live traffic status, navigate more effectively, plan rest stops and check the condition of their freight if required.
The argument in favour of automated drivers is that they are safer and more efficient than their human counterparts; as they do not suffer lapses in concentration, drive less erratically and react faster to smaller changes in circumstances. However, until driverless technology is proven; the thought of completely unmanned HGVs on our roads is still a somewhat frightening one.
Now that the vehicles have been given the green light in Nevada, Daimler must start racking up incident-free miles, especially if they are to prove that their technology is ready for the marketplace. In September 2014, the company was also granted permission to test their Mercedes version of the driverless lorries on a closed section of the German Autobahn, so it may not be long until we notice these vehicles being tested in Europe as well.
Although it is likely to take time for the public, regulators and insurance companies to become comfortable with the idea of automated lorries on our motorways, the benefits of driverless technology is clearly being recognised.
Looking to the future, Daimler believes that advances in technology such as cloud AI, better sensors, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and machine leaning will increase the number of miles that the vehicles are able perform. It has been suggested that the next stage of the development could be to introduce completely driverless sections to journeys, where the vehicles drop off and collect drivers along the way.
It is clear that the technology is well suited to the wide open desert highways of the North American subcontinent, where over 9 billion tons of freight is hauled annually by over 3 million trucks. However, the question “Can he do it do it on a cold rainy morning rush hour on the M25?” is still out on this one.
Long distance haulage companies across Europe will however be interested in these technological developments, but with different vehicle legislation, transport infrastructure and driving customs in each European country, it is likely to be a long time before we see a viable solution.