Peterbilt shows off autonomous truck

DALLAS, Texas — Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck may not be the only autonomous tractor cruising Nevada highways before long. Peterbilt has an autonomous truck of its own and is interested in licensing it to operate on roads in Nevada, the only state or province thus far to allow such trucks.

Peterbilt refers to its system as Advanced Driver Assist, and says it’s more of a stepping stone to a true autonomous vehicle. However by NHTSA’s definition, it does qualify as a Level 3 autonomous vehicle, according to Bill Kahn, manager of advanced concepts for Peterbilt.

One of two autonomous trucks developed by Peterbilt.
One of two autonomous trucks developed by Peterbilt.

NHTSA describes Level 3 automation as enabling “the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.”

During a demonstration last week at Texas Motor Speedway, the Peterbilt truck with Advanced Driver Assist did everything Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck did earlier this month, and some things it did not.

Both trucks use cameras to seek out lane markings and steer the truck within its lane. But when lane markings are absent, Peterbilt’s uses “high-precision GPS mapping” to follow a route that’s been pre-programmed into the system. So it was able to navigate the road course at Texas Motor Speedway even though no lane markings were present, choosing the safest and most efficient path as determined in advance by Peterbilt engineers.

The idea is to eventually enable the system to achieve lane-keeping by both modes and to be able to switch seamlessly between the two, so that in construction zones or other areas where lane markings aren’t present, the truck can continue to find its way. The GPS system Peterbilt uses is accurate to within five centimeters, the company claims.

Still, Peterbilt has shied away from the term ‘autonomous,’ providing frequent reminders a driver must always be the chief decision-maker. Even so, in typical driving situations, its system can take over steering control about 85% of the time, Kahn said.

Loading acceptable truck routes into the system will be a painstaking process, at least initially, until all well-travelled truck routes have been programmed.

“The truck can’t follow automotive GPS maps, because of the trailer,” Kahn explained. “So we go out there and teach it what lane it needs to be in and how fast it can go around each of the corners, to drive the route as efficiently and safely as possible.”

When it comes to lane-changing, the driver will still need to advise the system on whether or not it’s safe to do so.

The system in the truck we rode in could be activated and deactivated using a green rocker switch on the dash.

Peterbilt has built two trucks with the Advanced Driver Assist system, one of which was developed for Walmart. Before it becomes viable commercially, Kahn said production costs will have to be reduced. The LIDAR laser system on the truck we rode in cost close to $15,000 and will need to be $1,000 to be economically palatable to fleets. And the pricey cameras will also have to come down in price significantly, Kahn pointed out.

Both the Freightliner and Peterbilt autonomous systems are spectacular, but the truck makers have taken substantially different approaches towards achieving automation.

While the Freightliner system relies solely on cameras to detect lane markings, and can currently only function when lane markings are clearly visible to the cameras, the Peterbilt system supplements such cameras with the use of high-precision GPS, potentially broadening the scenarios in which its driver assist system can function. That is only, of course, if that specific route has been programmed into the system.

Freightliner’s Highway Pilot system currently only becomes available at highway speeds, while Peterbilt’s Advanced Driver Assist can be activated from a complete stop and will bring the truck up to road speed without driver input.

However for its part, Daimler has demonstrated the confidence in its system to work with the state government in Nevada to have it legalized and has tested its Highway Pilot autonomous driving system extensively on public roads there. Peterbilt, to date, has limited public demonstrations of its system to off-highway environments and at Texas Motor Speedway, sans trailer. Both companies, however, have made clear the technology is ready to roll when regulators and the motoring public are comfortable with it. Peterbilt, for its part, seems resigned to the fact it’ll be a while before the systems are approved for widespread use.

“The technology’s there; the technology works,” said Darrin Siver, general manager of Peterbilt. “We’ve done a lot of testing but we would do a lot more testing before we’d ever think of going into production with that. Regulatory hurdles need to be overcome first, then you come to public perception. The technology is there and it works but it has to be accepted and it’s hard to say when that’ll become a reality. Others have made some more optimistic predictions.”


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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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