Daimler debuts 'autonomous' truck

By John Bendel, Land Line editor-at-large | Monday, July 07, 2014

Daimler has introduced the world’s first autonomous truck, a specially built Mercedes-Benz Actros 1845 designed to run without the active participation of a driver, particularly over long distances. The company demonstrated what they call “Future Truck 2025” to 300 journalists from more than 30 nations on a new, unopened section of autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany, on July 3. Daimler Trucks North America, a division of the company, manufactures and distributes Freightliner trucks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Daimler executives at the introduction made clear that the autonomous truck, while quite real, is not expected to be on the market until 2025, at which time, they hope, traffic laws will have been amended to allow for such vehicles. Autonomous trucks, they say, will be more fuel efficient and far safer than today’s trucks.

Courtesy of Daimler

Daimler unveiled the “Future Truck 2025” autonomous truck to trade media in Magdeburg, Germany. During the presentation the truck passed the reviewing stand a number of times in company with as many as 20 other vehicles, accelerating and decelerating as needed.

Daimler was careful not to use the expression “driverless” in the elaborate introduction. The ability of the truck to guide and control itself on the highway, they explained, was to relieve the driver of stress, not to replace him or her. Every photograph provided by Daimler of the Mercedes-Benz Actros was photo-enhanced to make perfectly clear that a driver was always in the vehicle, ready to take over control.

The autonomous truck is equipped with “Highway Pilot” technology to monitor its surroundings, including but hardly limited to what is immediately ahead, beside and behind it on the roadway. According to Daimler, Highway Pilot will ultimately involve information shared wirelessly among vehicles in any area, a virtual cloud of data called CAM, the Corporate Awareness Message. CAM will enable autonomous vehicles to factor in what sensors on other vehicles can perceive, enabling all to see around curves, beyond traffic jams, and more.

During the autobahn demonstration, the Future Truck drove slowly past the reviewing stand while a camera inside the cab displayed on a giant screen across the highway. It showed the driver, his special seat turned at a 45-degree angle from the steering wheel. Most of the time he was looking at an iPad. But Daimler executives suggested they might add a desk at which the driver could carry out other duties while the truck drives itself. They envision the first commercial autonomous trucks to be used on long-distance runs where driver fatigue is an issue.

The Future Truck did not drive itself at all times during the demonstration. At one point the Mercedes was challenged by an extremely slow truck in front of it. The autonomous truck notified the driver, who then took control, accelerated into the left lane, overtook the laggard vehicle, and returned to the right lane ceding control back to the truck. As we could see on the display screen, the driver then swiveled to his right and returned to his iPad.

Courtesy of Daimler

When not driving the autonomous truck, the driver turned his special seat 45 degrees from the steering wheel and spent most of the time looking at an iPad.

After its initial solo drive-by, the autonomous Mercedes passed the reviewing stand a number of times in company with as many as 20 other vehicles, accelerating and decelerating as needed. While passing a staged emergency on the shoulder, the autonomous truck moved as far to the left in its lane as possible – a subtle move to say the least.

Journalists were told they would be “flabbergasted” by what they were about to see. But it’s hard to be flabbergasted by traffic passing by without incident even if one truck in the group is steering itself. Few things are less visually arresting than safety systems actually working.

But if the Daimler’s road show was less than entertaining, it was very exciting in another, more significant sense. Daimler, which claims to spend $1.2 billion a year on research and development, has launched a major initiative to push trucks into the rapidly evolving world of self-driving cars. In a stroke Daimler has made freight transportation a major part of any relevant conversation. And now Daimler trucks lead a market that does not yet exist but that in a foreseeable future will clearly be enormous.

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