Self-driving 18-wheel semi truck gets first autonomous license for U.S. roads

Nevada approved the first autonomous license which will allow the self-driving Freightliner Inspiration to drive on U.S. highways.

Self-driving semi Freightliner Inspiration
Credit: Daimler

If the idea of an autonomous 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer causes you to think of a Maximum Overdrive-flavored future, then you can relax for now, as you won't soon be glancing over and seeing no driver in the driver seat as you pass a semi on the highway.

"It is incorrect to refer to a vehicle in autonomous mode as a driverless truck," Daimler Trucks said about the Freightliner Inspiration 18-wheeler truck that it unveiled last week at Hoover Dam; the truck received an autonomous license for use on public roads.

The big rigs won't even be fully autonomous. "We need an attentive driver," said Al Pearson, Daimler Trucks' chief engineer of product validation. He believes the tech will remove some of the driver's stress, but there is still "no texting, no napping while in motion." His claims about tech reducing stress are backed by a study of 16 truck drivers conducted by Daimler. The EEG brainwave measurement results proved "that drowsiness was reduced by 25% when the truck operated in autonomous mode and the test subject performed interesting secondary tasks (e.g. on a tablet computer)."

NPR was told that the Freightliner Inspiration poses no threat to drivers' careers as there still needs to be "a driver in the driver's seat, first of all just to handle surface-street driving. This is a system that only works on the highway, and you could take the driver out, but then the truck would just endlessly drive down the highway and would be effectively useless."

Inside autonomous 18-wheeler Freightliner Inspiration Daimler

Daimler explained how the 18-wheeler works.

As soon as the Freightliner Inspiration Truck is safely on the highway, the driver can activate the Highway Pilot system. The Highway Pilot system uses a complex stereo camera and radar systems with lane-keeping and collision-prevention functions. It regulates the speed, applies the brakes and steers. The Highway Pilot system does not initiate autonomous passing maneuvers. These have to be executed by the driver. The same is true for leaving the highway and changing lanes. The driver can deactivate the Highway Pilot manually and is able to override the system at any time.

Highway Pilot active dashboard message in autonomous truck Daimler

After Freightliner Inspiration switches to autonomous mode, the driver receives the confirmation message "Highway Pilot active."

According to the press release for the unveiling of the "first licensed autonomous" semi at Hoover Dam:

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is equipped with the Highway Pilot sensors and computer hardware is based upon a series production Freightliner Cascadia Evolution, fully certified to meet all U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The Highway Pilot links together a sophisticated set of camera technology and radar systems with lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking, steering and other monitoring systems. This combination creates a Level 3 autonomous vehicle operating system that can perform safely under a range of highway driving conditions. In total, two trucks with this equipment exist.

Currently autonomous vehicles have only been approved for use on public roads in Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan and the District of Columbia. "The Inspiration trucks know how to stay in lane, change speed and avoid collisions," added New Scientist. "A camera mounted above the dashboard has a range of 328 feet (100 meters) which can recognize pavement markings and keeps the truck in its lane. Radar monitors the road up to 820 feet (250 meters) ahead to spot other vehicles and the truck also automatically complies with any speed limits."

The first self-driving truck can only handle highway driving and not surface roads. The truck beeps an alert to a trucker when the driver needs to take over the driving such as during bad weather, at the right exit, and when it needs to change lanes and pass other vehicles. If the driver does not respond to the beeped alert, then the truck slows down and eventually stops altogether.

Driver using tablet in autonomous18-wheeler Daimler

"The human brain is still the best computer money can buy," said Daimler Trucks North America LLC CEO Martin Daum. But in the future, instead of companies advertising to hire drivers, future truckers might be called logistics managers. "It is conceivable that drivers will take over tasks that today are the domain of the dispatcher or that benefit social contact," Daimler said. "Owner-operators in particular can get their office work done conveniently while on the road."

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