Daimler makes history with first license for autonomous commercial truck to operate on public highway

The first state license plate is installed on an autonomous commercial truck for use on a U.S. Public Highway.
The first state license plate is installed on an autonomous commercial truck for use on a U.S. Public Highway.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – Commercial trucking history was made today in the sunshine of the Nevada desert as state governor Brian Sandoval officially granted the first license for an autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States to Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA).

Proclaiming that “for innovation you need to have courage” Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the board of management of Daimler AG Daimler Trucks and Buses, and Gov. Sandoval took part in the inaugural trip of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck in autonomous mode as a gathering of international journalists and trucking industry analysts from 25 countries recorded the special moment.

“Today is history. It is the next step in revolutionizing the way we move goods and services…Eventually this will transform the future of commercial transportation. Today will be a day we will all look back on and remember,” Gov. Sandoval said in thanking DTNA for “looking at the impossible and finding a safe way to make it possible.”

Nevada was selected as the demonstration location because it is one of four states, plus the District of Columbia, with laws regulating autonomous vehicle operation. Nevada legislation passed in 2011 and 2013 regulates the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles. The legislation includes commercial trucks and sets standards specifying the number of miles an autonomous vehicle must have been tested in certain conditions before it can be granted a license to be driven in Nevada. Daimler obtained a special permit from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to operate the Freightliner Inspiration Truck on public roads near Las Vegas after supplying state officials with detailed information on the safety systems in the truck and the training program for the drivers. Autonomous mode in the Freightliner Inspiration Truck is similar to placing a plane on auto pilot. Although the truck can move on its own, the driver still monitors truck functions and remains in charge.

“It makes the driver’s life and his job that much more attractive,” Dr. Bernhard said.

The ceremony held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the Spring Mountains in the  background and fighter jets from the nearby Air Force base streaming by included Gov. Sandoval affixing a state license plate to the truck. It is part of a three-day event hosted by DTNA to showcase developments being made in autonomous commercial truck technology. More information of the vehicle is to follow at a special unveiling tonight and during all-day sessions tomorrow. (Stay tuned to trucknews.com and check your next issue of Truck News and Truck West for more details).

“The autonomous vehicle technology we are showcasing in the Freightliner Inspiration Truck will help reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion, and safeguard the environment,” said Dr. Bernhard.

Ninety percent of truck crashes are a result of driver error, Bernhard pointed out.

“In an autonomous truck the system never gets tired, never gets distracted,” he said.

Daimler engineers measuring brain activity of drivers found that driver drowsiness decreased by 25% when using an autonomous system.

With many transportation journalists from Europe in attendance it was pointed out that most industry analysts expected to see such a breakthrough happen in Europe first. But Dr. Bernhard said his company made it clear that whomever has the regulatory framework in place first will get the autonomous vehicle launch, adding “these guys (Nevada state officials) move fast.”

Martin Daum, president and CEO of DTNA, also pointed out that driver fatigue is more of an issue in North America than it is in Europe because of the longer distances.

Autonomous vehicle technology is clearly making great strides fast but there are many hurdles ahead before autonomous vehicles become an ordinary sight on North American roadways. Chief among these is approval from more states and provinces so that autonomous vehicles are not bound to specific state boundaries.

“Ultimately this has to be regulated federally to have consistency but the first step is at the state level,” Daum said.

Liability should something go wrong with the system is another question to be tackled.

“Before mass production the liability question has to be answered by regulators,” Daum acknowledged.

And there is still more testing required to see how the autonomous system operates under more extreme weather conditions.

But on this day the hope and excitement for the future of autonomous vehicles springs as eternal as the many natural water springs of the surrounding Spring Mountains.

For more information, visit www.freightlinerinspiration.com.

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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