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October 4, 2015

Bionic Drivers in Daimler’s Sights

Daimler Trucks has grabbed headlines around the world with its autonomous driving trucks. First to debut, in the summer of 2014, was Future Truck 2025, a self-driving Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor-trailer combo that ran with other Benz products on a closed section of German Autobahn. More recently this year and perhaps more spectacularly, the spotlight shifted to Las Vegas where similar Highway Pilot technology applied to Freightliner Cascadia saw two Innovation Trucks drive autonomously across the Hoover Dam.

In early October, the Actros was in the spotlight again in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s third-largest state and home to Daimler’s headquarters in Stuttgart. The occasion was the granting of permits for trucks guided by Highway Pilot to operate on the state’s highways.

That privilege had already been granted to Freightliner in Nevada, but with the provision that the drivers of these so called driverless truck would be certified in their operation. To that end, a few of the first drivers to gain certification were the members of the trucking press that hold commercial drivers’ licenses.

At the certification event, staged at the Las Vegas Speedway, the seven press drivers were given instruction in the special characteristics of the self-driving Freightliner Innovation Trucks. Nevada tasked Daimler to develop the certification so that drivers who will pilot these trucks get a grounding in the use of the Highway Pilot system. The system allows the driver to take feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel as the truck guides itself down the road.

And the reason I mention it in this column is that I was one of the drivers and now, I’m proud to say, have a certificate to frame and hang on my office wall that proclaims I have passed the certification and can drive autonomous commercial vehicles in the State.

Nevada is leading the rest of the United States in permitting these self-driving trucks on its highways. It is important because the safety systems that go together to make the truck self driving are there to extend the physical boundaries beyond the normal capabilities of the commercial vehicle driver.

It’s completely incorrect to call the autonomous trucks “driverless.” A driver is there to take action if needs be, but the safety systems respond more quickly than a regular driver can, see farther down the road and stay in lane better than with a regular driver.

In the meeting, Diane Hames, General Manager Marketing and Strategy for Daimler Trucks, christened drivers operating in the new environment, Bionic Drivers as their regular performance is enhanced by the technologies − especially toward the end of a working day. 

A driver may get tired, fatigued even, but the safety systems do not, she said. Hames also said that the autonomous truck means less fatigue for the driver who is relieved of the need to fiercely concentrate on keeping a large commercial vehicle in lane and continually making decisions about speed, following distance and so on.

In the certification we drove the trucks around a loop on public highway and freeway, letting the truck handle the relatively straight-line work, while we drivers took over control for maneuvering around corners and driving the surface streets around the Las Vegas Speedway. And I have to say, the truck did a marvelous job.

The Innovation Trucks not only have the self guidance, they have rear-view camera systems that display the images on interior screens. These images are dynamic, so that in maneuvering around sharp corners, the image adjusts so the back of the trailer and the tandem are always in view. So in driving I had to master this new rear-view system and also be prepared to let go of the steering wheel as the system took over control of the truck.

The only odd thing about this is that as the Highway Pilot system takes over the steering, the driver has to consciously let go of the steering wheel − somewhat unnerving as the feeling at the wheel is rather akin the truck running on a rutted road or hitting a pothole − a situation where the driver would normally tighten the grip on the wheel.

But there was no drama associated with the driving − or rather sitting in the driver’s seat. It is all very seamless and there are overrides to allow the driver to quickly take over should the need arise.

The system is activated by a red switch in the entirely remodeled dash of the innovation Truck. The all electronic display ahead of the driver has information and prompts, as well as changing its appearance when the Highway Pilot system is engaged.

In driving with the system disengaged, the Innovation Truck is no different than the Cascadia Evolution upon which it is based. A stylish new hood and various chassis and wheel fairings give if a whole new, semi sci-fi, look but it’s unmistakably Cascadia. The interior is totally different, from the hard-wood flooring to the bunks in the sleeper for riders to experience the demos, to the stylish, touch-enabled dash.

On the road, the system takes a few hundred yards to zero in on the road markings then displays a message that Highway Pilot system is available. At this point, selecting ‘resume’ on the steering-wheel mounted cruise controls enables the system and it takes over steering, cruise control and following distance to the vehicle in front. It also has automated braking to avoid collision.

Applying the brakes suspends the system and the cruise resume button must be pressed to re-engage it. Taking over the steering merely overrides the automatic feature and releasing it again automatically re-engages when the steering wheel is released.

The important thing about the autonomous truck is that it uses no systems that aren’t already available on vehicles. But the demo trucks are a very good example of what packaging them together can achieve.

So don’t look for self driving trucks any time soon. But be prepared to experience these safety technologies packaged in different ways to make you be any driver a Bionic one.


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