First self-driving trucks hit the road

Last May in Nevada (US) the first driverless trucks have been licensed for commercial use, and while the technology promises to change freight transport with better safety and efficiency, the main obstacle remains to convince more governments to approve its use.

The autonomous Inspiration Truck is legally allowed to cruise in Nevada (credit: Daimler AG)

The autonomous Inspiration Truck is legally allowed to cruise in Nevada (credit: Daimler AG)

The state of Nevada has always been at the forefront of employing new driving technologies (e.g. allowing Google’s driverless cars to use public roads), so when the German company Daimler turned to them – after many European governments seemed too slow to approve regulations – the ‘Battle Born State’ promptly took the new driverless-trucks technology on board.

The world’s first self-driving truck is called “Inspiration Truck”. It is an 18-wheeler truck manufactured by Freightliner (now Daimler Trucks North America LLC) – which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the German Daimler AG Company. It is, technically, a Level-3 autonomous vehicle which means that a driver must remain at the wheel at all times while the truck is in motion and be able to take over driving.

While travelling along a clearly marked road, the truck allows the driver to activate the “Highway Pilot” which, once ‘on’, takes control of both speed and steering. In case the software determines that it cannot handle certain twists, turns or traffic conditions the driver is warned and has 20 second to confirm re-taking control of the truck or this will automatically stop to prioritize safety.

The idea is that the autonomous system will handle mainly long-haul highway driving – which is currently the main cause of driver fatigue. In fact, although federal regulations limit truck drivers to 11 hours top behind the wheel, that is still a lot of time and it is not clear how many actually abide by the rule. “Ninety percent of truck accidents are due to driver error, and 1 in 8 of those are due to driver fatigue,” says Wolfgang Bernard, global head of trucks and buses for Daimler.

Currently, what seems to be slow is not innovation in driverless technology but rather state regulations. Like other self-driving vehicles, Daimler’s technology is not legal in most places yet. Actually, Nevada is the only state letting “The Inspiration Trucks” to cruise around. Wolfgang Bernard seems positive though. Experts predict an increase of 23.5 percent by 2025, from the figure of 2013 for freight tonnage transported, which means that many companies could decide to invest in the new self-driving trucks rather than stick with the old way. “This comes with a big challenge,” says Bernhard. “We have to manage the growth of our industry in a way that works for the environment and the economy. And that’s exactly what autonomous trucks can do.”

A video featuring the driverless trucks technology can be found here.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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