Autonomous semi-truck driving officially arrived in Nevada on Tuesday night, and it did so in spectacular fashion: Atop the curved concrete edge of Hoover Dam.
German automaker Daimler chose the world-famous location to introduce its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the world’s first licensed autonomous truck.
Nevada is already ahead of the curve when it comes to self-driving cars, handing out autonomous vehicle (AV) licenses and license plates. But this is the first 18-wheel commercial vehicle to garner the designation (the state actually licensed two autonomous Freightliners), and the truck showed off its hands-free driving skill on top of the nearly 80-year-old landmark.
The truck, which is based on the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 that drove on the autobahn last year, was tested in Germany where, according to Daimler, it has covered more than 10,000 autonomous miles.
Similar to the autopilot system in a passenger jet, Daimler’s Freightliner has “Highway Pilot,” which the truck driver engages. That’s how Daimler did it for Tuesday’s demonstration: A driver pulled the truck onto the road atop the Hoover Dam, and the truck’s Highway Pilot took over.
Daimler’s truck is festooned with sensors, including front radars that see the road over 800 feet in front of it, another radar to detect cars merging in front of the truck, and stereo cameras that analyze road markings to communicate with the steering mechanism. It knows the rules of the road and will brake and accelerate based on posted speed limits for semi-trucks.
Before you start imaging a convoy of driverless trucks, Daimler cautioned in its announcement, “In terms of on-highway commercial trucks, it is incorrect to refer to a vehicle in autonomous mode as a driverless truck. Drivers remain the boss in their vehicle because the technology … requires the presence of a qualified truck driver with valid commercial driver’s license in the cab and on the gauges.”
In addition, there are numerous maneuvers the truck cannot make on its own, such as passing and lane changes. Plus, if the Highway Pilot senses particularly adverse driving conditions, like bad weather, it will ask the human driver to take over.
Though only licensed for one state, autonomous freight trucks could not come at a better time. Driving a semi is tiring and dangerous work. A 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study noted that, in the U.S., “333,000 large trucks were involved in traffic crashes.” A 2009 Harvard School of medicine study on Drowsy Driving[PDF] reported that “truck drivers are often chronically sleep deprived.”
Those challenges may be leading to a dwindling number of commercial truck drivers. In 2014, the trucking industry reported nearly 35,000 unfilled jobs.
Smarter trucks that take some of the burden off commercial truck drivers and always follow the rules of the road could make the job of commercial truck driver more attractive again. Of course, Daimler’s Freightliner Inspiration is only licensed in Nevada, which means the self-driving semi is limited to transporting goods within one state. The typical trucker might be on the road two to three weeks at a time, which surely means they are driving state to state.
Autonomous semi-truck driving won’t be much of a panacea for these drivers — not until the truck can cross state lines.
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