Daimler delivers automation, leaves truck drivers in control

John G Smith

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It can be a little disconcerting to watch a steering wheel move back and forth on its own, but there it is. One of the latest new Cascadias to roll off Freightliner’s assembly line nudges left and right to keep within tracked lane markings, even when hands are off the wheel for a few seconds.

Welcome to an era of SAE Level 2 automation, courtesy of the Detroit Assurance 5.0 suite of safety systems.

Daimler Trucks North America is the first manufacturer to offer this level of automated control, combining radar-based sensors and a windshield-mounted camera to decide when to adjust speeds, apply brakes, and make minor steering corrections to keep the truck in its lane.

“Imagine you’re driving, you’re in in a high-wind situation, you have high side winds,” says Brian Daniels, product marketing manager – Detroit components. Lane Keep Assist, activated when the cruise control is enabled, can help keep things centered. The more aggressive turns of Lane Departure Protection, activated at speeds above 60 km/h, will help to keep the truck from drifting off the road entirely.

The automated steering hardly replaces the need for a driver, though. Stretches of highway might be marked by faded lines that the high-definition camera can’t register; certain curves can be too tight; a layer of snow might obscure the all-important lane markings altogether. The system can account for lane markings that disappear for a few feet but will rely on the driver if the lines are obscured over longer distances.

But this isn’t about replacing drivers. It’s about offering an extra layer of support for those behind the wheel.

Nothing emphasizes this better than the sensors used to track whether drivers are truly in control.

Dash icons warn drivers if their hands need to return to the wheel.

Lift your hands off the wheel for 30 seconds and a yellow icon appears in the driver information display. At 60 seconds the image turns red and is accompanied by warning sounds that beep at an increasing rate. If all that is ignored, Lane Keep Assist is de-activated, signaled by a blue truck icon that turns grey. Another sensor will shut down the system if a seat is vacated for more than 15 seconds.

The technological support of Lane Departure Protection remains active, though.

Daniels insists drivers won’t be able to fool the system by wrapping tape around a steering wheel or jamming something else up against it. But neither will drivers have to maintain a death grip on the wheel. A light touch and the subtle amount of movement that comes with it are recognized.

“The driver needs to be engaged,” adds Luc Leblanc, a Canadian-based technical sales representative, as warning buzzers sound inside the cab during a test run.

Drivers even remain in control of the automation itself. Just a minor amount of pressure can override automated steering adjustments; final production models of the truck will include a switch on the dash to deactivate the lane-keeping assistance.

Lane departure warnings can also be paused for 15 minutes at a time with the push of a button on the dash, silencing the digitized sound of rumble strips when traveling through construction zones, or anywhere new and old lane markings intermingle.

Adaptive cruise control

The sense of control is not limited to the lane-focused support.

Optional settings for adaptive cruise control can be used to adjust following distances to somewhere between 2.6 and 3.6 seconds, even when the truck is rolling.

But the new Cascadia is not limiting itself to the traditional ideas of cruise control. Detroit Assurance 5.0 introduces a system that can be used in stop-and-go traffic.

The cruise will remain activated right down to a complete stop, and automatically moves the truck forward if the vehicle stopped in front of the bumper begins to roll within two seconds. “We can ensure nothing or no one has entered between the vehicle and the car ahead of us,” Daniels says, referring to the importance of the tight timeline. Even after a longer pause, the cruise can be re-engaged through the simple tap of the accelerator or the resume button on the steering wheel.

“The important thing here is reducing driver fatigue,” Daniels says. “We want them to be in cruise control longer when they’re in that open-road situation.”

The overall system tracks up to 40 objects within 800 feet of the truck’s bumper, using radar to prioritize six objects, and the camera to focus on four. The data is refreshed about 200 times per second.

Combining the radar and camera realizes the best of two worlds. “A camera has shorter visibility than radar,” Daniels explains. But its lens offers added confidence that the thing being tracked is actually an object that requires attention.

By focusing on closing rates rather than specific distances, the cruise control is also able to make subtle throttle adjustments and avoid slamming on the brakes if a faster-moving vehicle cuts in front of the truck.

But when the new Cascadia needs to come to a stop, it can. First the fuel is reduced, and then the engine brake is engaged. Foundation brakes are applied as the final step. Even if the cruise control isn’t engaged, Active Brake Assist will step in to help if a truck looks like it’s about to hit a standing object.

The addition of a road-facing camera is one of the keys to detecting pedestrians.

Evolving systems

The safety systems have certainly evolved in recent years. The first Detroit Assurance systems delivered warnings about threats detected through the bumper-mounted radar alone. Version 2.0 offered partial braking when detecting a stationary object, while 4.0 increased that to full braking.

Fusing the radar with a camera mounted in the windshield, Detroit Assurance 5.0 can actually track the hip movements of a moving pedestrian, applying emergency braking if it appears someone is in the truck’s path.

Still, such systems are described as collision “mitigation” rather than outright “prevention” for good reason. While the technology can track moving pedestrians, it can’t spot those that are standing still. Leblanc agrees that it might also have trouble registering the limited mass of a small child.

Side Guard Assist

Other new Cascadia options are meant specifically to improve a driver’s vision.

Side Guard Assist, a radar-based device mounted on the passenger side of the cab, will track traditional blind spots along the entire length of a 53-foot trailer.

Its related warnings come in several forms. Lane Changing Assist and Turn Assist will shine a yellow triangle in the A-pillar and instrument cluster if a moving object is detected along the passenger side of the tractor-trailer. The light turns red and is joined by an audible alert in this situation if the turn signal is activated or a driver begins to steer to the right. Trailer Sweep Assist calculates if the back of the tractor or trailer might hit a stationary object like a traffic sign or light pole, triggering a red triangle and warning sound.

“It is simply a warning. There is no steering, no braking,” Daniels stresses. “They just need to know it’s an object they don’t want to make contact with.”

Tracked events

Fleet managers have the option of tracking many of the safety-related events. Images from the front-facing camera, for example, can be uploaded to the Bendix Safety Direct portal. The side guard’s warnings are not tracked, though. For good reason.

“Sometimes the driver knew the whole time,” Daniels says, referring to the example of a driver who might apply the right turn signal while waiting for a cyclist to pass. “We don’t want to ding that driver because there’s no context.”

And the in-cab warnings are not limited to flashing lights and buzzers.

Images of traffic signs are captured and displayed in the gauge cluster, serving as a helpful reminder of warnings that might otherwise be missed or forgotten. But while the system will display speed limits, and signs banning passing or large trucks, some signs don’t register. It doesn’t capture signs to stop, yield, or do not enter, or warnings about ramps and curves.

“That is a passive system, it’s simply displaying the sign,” Daniels says. “The idea here is to supplement that driver experience.”

Another option to enhance the driving experience comes in the form of an intelligent high beam system, a carryover from the automotive sector. It will automatically apply high beams, switching back to low beams when detecting oncoming traffic or overhead lights.

Even wipers can be automated. A sensor in the windshield recognizes dusk or reduced visibility, engaging the lights and wipers where needed.

“You can leave the wiper switch perpetually in auto,” Daniels said.

Growing interest in safety systems

Interest in automated safety systems has certainly climbed dramatically. In 2015, 29% of Cascadias were equipped with collision mitigation systems. By 2017 the take rate had climbed close to 50%, and at the end of last year three in every four new Cascadias came with the equipment.

“The public perception, the legal perception, all these things are changing,” Daniels says.

But one thing remains unchanged.

“The driver is still the primary safety feature of this truck,” he says. “All these things were talking about are supplementing [the driving experience].”

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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