Well, that was quick!
The time for automated, self-driving trucks is upon us – much sooner than expected. GIANENRICO GRIFFINI speaks to Sven Ennerst, head of truck product engineering at Daimler Trucks, at the launch of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck.
Last year, Daimler’s targeted implementation date, for autonomous trucks to begin roaming the world’s roads, was in ten years’ time. Hence the name of the company’s first such vehicle: the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025. We brought you all the details on this engineering spectacle in the August 2014 edition of FOCUS.
We can now report that Daimler’s predictions were largely nonsense … It is very likely that the date is going to come forward – by a lot.
The world’s first, licensed autonomous driving truck has hit public roads. Once again, it comes from within Daimler’s stable, but, since the State of Nevada in the United States of America (USA) was most willing to grant such permission, this time the (slightly altered) technology is cloaked in the skin of a Freightliner Cascadia. This is not necessarily a bad thing, when you consider that Freightliner’s American market share is around 40 percent.
“Last year, we said there might be certain countries that grant licences and certifications to run autonomous trucks more quickly. Here [in the USA] they are very active and aggressive in setting a legal framework to apply the technology to public roads,” explains Ennerst.
“Nevada offers us the opportunity to run in real life and figure out what future hurdles might entail. In terms of its regulatory framework, the US is more advanced than Europe, so we built up the Cascadia trucks and set up agreements with the authorities.”
The states of Florida, Michigan, Columbia and California, are also quite liberal in this regard, but each still has individual regulations. This means the trucks cannot cross state borders. There are, therefore, some limitations with this pilot project, but these have not deterred the interested parties one bit.
In 2009, Daimler’s Supertruck programme set the company’s long-term view about its autonomous drive prospects, and about what is technically possible in terms of transport efficiency. Following on from that has been the Freightliner Cascadia Evolution truck – which can currently be bought by customers. This truck features a host of innovations developed in the Supertruck programme, with the possibility of more to be introduced in the future.
With regard to getting the Inspiration Truck on the road, Ennerst explains that certain requirements had to be satisfied. “There are no very significant regulations that are impossible to fulfil, but we had to show and convince the authorities that there is a safety aspect behind the concept,” he begins.
“One of the core requirements was to prove that the system does work. This required a
10 000 mile (16 000 km) test drive, in a context similar to the intended application, to ensure all the functions work. So we did that, with a major part of it taking place in Germany.
“The second requirement was skilled drivers. They have to know how the system works and how to handle the fail modes of the system. It’s not a driverless vehicle … the driver has to take over in certain conditions. The vehicle will not overtake by itself and the driver has to take over when off the highway. If there are no lane markings, or the camera cannot see them, because of fog or the radar sensors are covered with snow, the system will switch off and give the driver a take-over signal with a count-down.
“The third requirement was a well-positioned ‘off’ switch, so that the driver can regain full control of the systems. The fourth was the fitment of a data logger that logs information 30 to 45 seconds before a potential incident and for 15 seconds afterwards.”
Ennerst explains that, like every other safety system, the goal is to learn from the vehicles. “Automated or assisted drive can assist skilled and unskilled drivers to be safe and not make mistakes. Our intention is not to get drivers out of the vehicle …
“We particularly wanted to test the driver drowsiness factor and ran lots of sophisticated tests in autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles. We saw, objectively, that there is 25-percent less drowsiness experienced by the driver of the autonomous vehicle, because he’s able to keep himself busy and is not exposed to all the monotonous driving on the long haul. The subjective questioning of the drivers perfectly matches these findings. We see this as a major benefit.”
So, by how many years were Daimler’s predictions out? Well, it’ll still be a few years before we see the widespread availability of autonomous vehicles on our streets. Mileage needs to be done and experience gained with the system. It’s not, however, the technology that will determine the timeframe. That, Ennerst points out, is up to the regulatory environment.
“We have to start discussions with regulators and customers to see what the impact of the systems might be, and how it will be accepted. Regulatory authorities look worldwide and understand that, if you want to push technology, conditions have to be set whereby you can develop those technologies.
“In the European context we expected this to go very slowly, but we are positively surprised that it is, in fact, happening quickly. We are currently preparing licensing for testing on public roads in Germany!”
Future Truck 2020, then? Maybe even 2018? Only time will tell.
In the driver’s seat
As this is a highway pilot system, it’s useable at cruising speeds on the highway. With the highway system active, the instrument cluster will indicate that it is available. The driver can select to put it into operation, at which point the cluster will turn blue and the vehicle will be autonomous.
The driver has full control at all times – the idea is that he remains in control at all times. If a pedal is depressed or the steering is moved, the system will be interrupted and /or stopped, going into a passive, or availability, mode. The cameras and radar still see everything and remain ready for action.
As regular readers of FOCUS know, this magazine has been appointed an associate member of the International Truck of the Year (IToY)! FOCUS is the sole South African magazine to have joined this prestigious body. One of the advantages of this association is access to exclusive articles, specially written for FOCUS by ITOY jury members. This is one such article.