Freightliner Goes Autonomous

Inside the cab of the Inspiration. Yes, that driver is looking at a tablet that he is holding with both hands. Yes, that truck is actually moving down the highway. The Highway Pilot system—which takes inputs from radar sensors in the front bumper and from a stereo camera mounted in the rearview mirror area and then uses the information to control steering, throttle and brakes—is in control. When conditions change, the driver is alerted to resume physical control of the truck.

The Freightliner Inspiration. This Cascadia-based on-road truck is the first to be licensed anywhere in the world to drive on public roads. It is licensed in Nevada, and the reason why this is a first is because it is a Class Three autonomous vehicle in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration categorization, meaning that there is a driver, but the driver can cede control of the vehicle to the vehicle, which takes over steering, throttling, and braking.

Al Pearson, chief engineer, Product Validation Engineering, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), makes a statement that is probably a great example of understatement: “No one gets into the trucking industry because it is easy.”

While DTNA might not be all that familiar to you if you’re not in the heavy truck industry, know that when it comes to market share for Class 8 trucks in North America, of the four major competitors, you’d have to combine the shares of #2 and #4 to reach the 40% of #1, DTNA. You’re undoubtedly more familiar with the names of its subsidiaries, including Freightliner, Western Star, Thomas Built Buses, and Detroit (previously known as “Detroit Diesel”).

The trucking industry is tough across the board. From the women and men who sit behind the wheel of the rigs hour after hour, day after day, mile after mile to the people who design, engineer, test, and manufacture the equipment that has to be up to requirements that would make their counterparts in the car business cringe (a quick glance at some of the warranty durations shows numbers like 200,000 and 500,000 miles), doing what needs to be done for the trucking industry is . . . demanding.

And the people at DTNA are com-mitted to making it safer, better, more-efficient, and, yes, somewhat easier. One clear indicator of this commitment: DTNA has invested $4.3-billion in R&D since 2004.

You don’t spend that kind of money without some significant skin in the game.

Which brings us to where Al Pearson is talking: in a tent in a parking lot at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where DTNA is unveiling the Freightliner Inspiration truck.

The Inspiration is based on the Freightliner Cascadia on-highway Class 8 truck. And it has technologies that are found in the conventional Cascadia, but in some cases, modified. The steering system hardware, for example, is the same, but the software is different. There is an adaptive cruise control system and active brake assist system, which are part of the standard “Detroit Assurance” safety system offerings. (One of the reasons why the “Detroit Diesel” name is giving way to just “Detroit” is because while the company still makes diesels, axles and transmissions, it is also the part of DTNA that develops and produces safety systems and telematics.)

But unlike the Cascadia that you may see driving by on a highway—unless you happen to be in Nevada (and even there the odds are slim, as there are just two of them—anywhere)—the Inspiration is a Class 3 autonomous vehicle.

(Nevada governor Brian Sandoval: “The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has been closely monitor-ing 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.” And the demonstration in question is on public roads. Nevada is the first state to license on-highway trucks for autonomous operation on public roads, which is why Pearson and his colleagues are there.)

The Inspiration has two radar sensors in its front bumper. There is a long-range sensor that goes out to about 820 feet and at an aperture angle of 18°, so it senses objects in a long, narrow cone. The short-range radar goes out to about 230 feet, but its aperture angle is 130°, so it can detect vehicles ahead in a much wider area. There is also a stereo camera 
that’s mounted above the dashboard. It has a range of some 328 feet and aperture angles of 45° horizontally and 27° vertically. While the radar system looks for objects, the camera “reads” the lane markings on the road, to keep the vehicle within its lane.

The driver—yes, there is still a driver involved in Class 3 autonomous vehicles, even though the system allows the driver to give up control of safety-critical functions like steering and braking under certain conditions—is notified by a message in the instrument cluster whether the “Highway Pilot” can be activated.

In effect, the Highway Pilot analyzes information from the sensors and determines whether conditions are there for activating the autonomous operation. For example, it is necessary for lane markings to be visible in order for the lane-keeping to occur.

If the parameters are right, then the driver activates Highway Pilot and it takes over the steering, acceleration and braking. Should conditions change, the driver is notified—visually, audibly—to take control of the vehicle. (Or if the driver wants to shut it off, then that is a push-button away.)

While the Highway Pilot guides the truck on the highway, keeping to the speed limit, maintaining distance from other vehicles, there are things that it can’t do, like exiting the highway or changing lanes.

The system—and realize that more than 10,000 road miles notwithstanding, this is still a developmental project, not a production system, even though analogous technology is being used in a variety of Mercedes-brand cars today—is presently aimed at highway hauling, between cities, not within them.

According to Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler AG board member responsible for Trucks and Buses, they’ve conducted research and determined, “Autonomous trucks improve safety. Roughly 90% of truck crashes are because of driver error. One of 8 driver fatigue plays a role.” During development drives on closed courses, they conducted electro-encephalograms on the drivers, tracking their brain activity. It was determined that driver drowsiness decreased by about 25% as the truck was driving itself and the driver was engaged in other activities.                             

Bernhard says that it has been determined that there can be fuel savings of up to 5% through autonomous control, which also means reduced emissions. By having more autonomous vehicles on the road there can be less congestion (i.e., the systems can maintain more-consistent spacing between vehicles, even in stop-and-go situations). 

In 2012, 70% of the freight tonnage—9.4-billion tons—were moved by truck in the U.S. Globally, Bernhard says, road freight transport is expected to triple by 2050.

Which brings us back to Al Pearson. It isn’t going to get any easier in the trucking industry.

But maybe with the Inspiration and what it will lead to (no, I am not going to say “inspire”), things may just get better in the Class 8 world.