Licensed to drive

By Suzanne Stempinski, field editor

In September, I had the chance to do something only a handful of people in the U.S. have done - I got an autonomous truck license.

Six months earlier, I hadn't even considered such a thing. But in May of this year I covered the debut of Freightliner's Inspiration Truck - the first autonomous truck to be licensed by the state of Nevada. From that moment on, I wanted to get behind the wheel.

The truck was built on the Freightliner Cascadia platform, but amped up with technology developed as part of the Super Truck project and more. Only a small number of Daimler engineers were qualified to operate these vehicles in Nevada. In fact, Daimler developed the certification process for the state of Nevada.

A handful of CDL-holding trucking industry editors were invited to be the first non-engineers to become certified. While it was not a complicated process, the idea of taking my hands off the wheel and allowing the truck to take charge of getting itself down the road was a little unnerving.

For those of you who don't know, I've had my commercial driver's license since before there was a CDL. I logged more than 1.5 million miles as an owner-operator over more than 14 years. I've never had a chargeable accident and while I'd like to say it's all been because of superior driving skills, I know that a certain amount of luck and timing have played a part. It has been my pleasure and privilege to test drive trucks and write about the pluses and minuses of new technology and equipment. I bring the perspective of a truck driver who has driven in all kinds of weather and road conditions. I've watched technology evolve from two sticks with the driver sitting on a box with a throttle lock and a window crank to something George Jetson might have imagined.

The licensing process began at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and covered a roughly 10-mile route that included some time on the I-15 freeway.

My Daimler Trucks North America trainer, Jim Martin, was one of the engineers who designed the program.

Before he allowed me to slide into the driver's seat, we took a lap around the predetermined route as he reviewed the way the Highway Pilot system works. It is activated in a manner similar to cruise control.

There's a toggle on the dash, which turns the system on. The driver activity screen will notify you when Highway Pilot is available. You can then activate the Highway Pilot with the push of a button and take your hands off the wheel. A mandatory pilot car in front helps you get acclimated to the preprogrammed following distance (in this case about 3.5 seconds). There's also a chase vehicle behind.

With stereo cameras, an HMI (human machine interface) display, powertrain ECU, radar sensors, Active Brake Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and the Lane Departure Warning features of the Detroit Assurance suite of safety systems, Highway Pilot keeps the truck in one lane. It reads the lines on both sides and keeps the truck in the middle. When the road curves, the truck follows the curve and stays in the lane. Far from driverless, the system requires the driver to stay aware and alert and prepared to resume control of the vehicle at any time. And in order to pass, the driver had a checklist of criteria to follow.

"We just want to make sure you can handle the vehicle in a safe and appropriate manner," Martin said. "The important thing to know is to be aware, and be available to take control back from the vehicle at any point."

The checklist specifies that:

  • Driver participates in the training of the system and understands the technology
  • Driver must demonstrate knowledge of system capabilities and limitations before operating the system
  • Driver demonstrates ability to operate vehicle both in normal driving and autonomous driving modes
  • Driver knows when the Highway Pilot system is available
  • Driver demonstrates how to enable/activate Highway Pilot
  • Driver understands and can demonstrate how to disable and/or take back manual control
  • Driver trainee must demonstrate ability to react appropriately to a system error induced by DTNA trainer
  • Driver reaction time to system error is half second or better
  • Vehicle trajectory error must be corrected in no more than
  • 2.5 seconds; and

  • Lane deviation must be corrected to no more than about 2 feet.

It's just a test drive with a twist, I reminded myself as I adjusted my seat, strapped myself in and prepared to head out. Martin was calmly observant in the passenger seat, and a couple of my journalist colleagues rode along in the back to witness my inaugural run. We were grossing around 75,000 pounds.

A-pillar mounted screens offer high-resolution views of the truck and trailer. The DOT-required mirrors house cameras that pivot and turn to eliminate the blind spots. As you make a turn, you can see the back of the trailer.

I headed out of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and onto the local highway. The day was overcast, and I was very aware of being pushed and buffeted by the wind. When the Highway Pilot Available notification came on, I took a deep breath, pushed the button, and took my hands off the wheel when

I felt the system engage. It was a giant leap of faith.

The truck kept itself equidistant between the lines. The steering wheel rocked back and forth as the system made corrections. A truck was coming toward me on the other side of the road. I felt my shoulders tense as I resisted the urge to grab the steering wheel. All my internal systems stayed on alert. Traffic was light but steady in the other direction.

At a predetermined point, the test included a warning that the system was turning itself back over to me. First a visual, followed by an audio alert. I had a couple of options - to hit the button and turn it off, or tap the brake and resume full control. The process seemed intuitive - much like cruise control.

I followed the route, which led to I-15 South toward Las Vegas. Once again, when the Highway Pilot became available, I activated the system and let the truck do its job. Up ahead, on the shoulder, a service truck with flashing lights was not part of the plan. But as the driver, I'm always responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle, so I took control back, and changed lanes. Good thing I did, since he pulled off the shoulder into the lane of traffic I vacated. I re-engaged the system and completed the drive.

"Congratulations, you are our first driver to be certified to operate the Freightliner Inspiration truck in the State of Nevada," Martin said as I pulled up and parked back at the track.

The truck has technological possibilities for the future. For example, the high-resolution screens mounted inside the truck are brilliant, and a feature I'd like to see in any new truck design.

It's hard to wrap your head around the concept of a truck running down the road without your hands on the wheel at all times. Anti-lock brakes, cruise control and automated manual transmissions were also hard to understand when first introduced. Some were even considered "disruptive" or game-changing technologies. Now commonly adopted, those systems contribute significantly in the way we drive trucks today.

Autonomous trucks are not going to be populating our highways any time soon. However, the truck also employs technology that can be beneficial to truckers in the future, and the systems being developed in conjunction could start appearing in new model offerings soon.

It's those smaller systems making the autonomous truck possible that we will see long before rules and regulations let you take your hands off the wheel going down the road. LL