MAGDEBURG, Germany — Daimler Trucks has a radical vision of the near future based on a truck that drives itself. It’s not driverless, rather the driver can give almost complete control to the truck on the highway. And then turn his seat 45 degrees to the right while using his tablet to check the dinner menu at the next truckstop. Or organize his next load. Or perhaps talk to another driver via Skype. You name it, he can do it.
What he can’t do is leave his seat.
The self-driving Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 was introduced during an elaborate presentation and mini-conference in this former East German city, followed by a lengthy demonstration on a yet-to-be-opened stretch of the newly built A14 autobahn nearby. The much modified Actros cabover with trailer attached was driven at speeds up to 85 km/h in more or less realistic, if staged, traffic. And all on its own it made one subtle maneuver that was particularly impressive — approaching an emergency vehicle parked on the shoulder, the truck edged itself nearly into the next lane to safely clear the stationary Unimog and, once past, eased itself back into the absolute center of the driving lane. The driver did nothing.
This is what’s called autonomous driving, something of a buzzword in car circles these days, and now part of the trucking world.
“Autonomous driving will revolutionize road freight transport and create major benefits for everyone involved,” said Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler trucks and buses chief, beaming with apparent pride and enthusiasm as he introduced 325 journalists, analysts, and government officials to the ‘Highway Pilot’ assistance system. He hopes to make this a production vehicle — and have at least European society accept the autonomous idea — by 2025. North Americans might represent a tougher sell, though much remains to be seen.
It’s revolutionary in terms of the truck itself but also on other fronts. It depends, for example, on vehicle-to-vehicle communication. At which point we have to talk about what’s become another buzzword — or buzzphrase? — namely, the ‘Internet of Things’. In a nutshell that refers to connectivity at the next level where ‘things’ communicate with other ‘things’, instead of people communicating with other people. The convergence of those two is what’s going on here. It’s not really just about a very, very high-tech truck.
It’s actually a vision of what’s possible with transport systems at large, and with the full support of the German government and likely the European Parliament, Bernhard pledged to help make it happen. The event in Magdeburg, he said, was really aimed at starting a very broad discussion that will take us into uncharted territory.
“We think this is possible,” he said, “and we will prove it for trucks.”
So how does it work? At this point the Future Truck 2025 is a mix of existing and new technologies, some of them drawn from the car world, some from trucks. Cameras and radar sensors and such, like the familiar driver-assistance technology we already know, the active cruise control, automatic braking, stability control, and lane-keeping systems. A new one known as ‘Predictive Powertrain Control’ uses satellite-sourced information about road topography and route characteristics to adjust the operation of the drivetrain in order to maximize fuel economy. Other such assistance systems will follow in the coming years, says Daimler.
Crucially, these ‘smart’ trucks will communicate with one another and with cars sharing the road, trading information about speed and position, and thus be able to ‘mingle’ on the road safely with little driver intervention, at least on highways and major roads. Daimler compares Highway Pilot to the autopilot system in an airplane.
Trucks will also ‘talk’ to the road and associated infrastructure like traffic lights, assessing all inputs and reacting accordingly.
The Daimler vision sees “optimally executed acceleration and braking phases” that will help to ensure a smooth flow of traffic and reduce fuel consumption and emissions in the process. Autonomous driving will also mean more precise transport scheduling, the company says.
And trucks that talk to each other can travel more closely together and therefore take up less road space. There would be fewer traffic jams and the associated costs of congestion would be reduced. This amounts to the ‘platooning’ we’ve heard about in recent years, where trucks would travel in very close proximity to one another, the lead truck effectively driving the others.
Finally, autonomous trucks would mean fewer accidents caused by human error, which would in turn reduce insurance rates, Daimler suggests. Drivers would be less fatigued and less prone to lapses in concentration.
In practice, Daimler says the driver launches the truck and the autonomous driving starts with the Highway Pilot system announcing on a dash display that it’s ready to take over, having ‘seen’ the lane markings and ‘consulted’ the installed maps.
The driver switches the system on, then takes his hands off the wheel, and the tractor-trailer combination continues to travel at exactly the set speed, in the centre of the right-hand lane. Using the truck’s intelligent sensors and computing power, the steering carries out slight corrections by itself.
As Daimler describes it, “The driver wants to relax in comfort, so he presses a button on the seat armrest: the driver’s seat immediately moves backwards, and pivots to the right by 45 degrees for a comfortable seating position. The driver is able to stretch his legs in comfort, as if sitting in an armchair at home. He is able to reach the steering wheel, but the brake pedal only by an artistic foot contortion.”
The Highway Pilot is a combination of radar sensors at the front and sides, a stereo camera behind the windshield, precise three-dimensional maps, and V2V/V2I communication (Vehicle to Vehicle and Vehicle to Infrastructure).
Drivers won’t see a conventional instrument cluster, rather a high-resolution, graphic color display on a removeable tablet computer in the center console. This is the truck’s central control and communication instrument. And it will allow the driver to do everything from ordering his next truckstop meal to setting the temperature in the reefer trailer he’s aiming to hook up to 100 km down the road.
That’s just a small part of the larger vision Daimler presented here in Germany, and it’s a story far too large to tell here. Look for more detail in The Lockwood Report e-newsletter on July 16.
In the meantime, another tidbit: the first autonomous driving experiment goes way back to the 1950s, long before the advent of computers and miniaturized video cameras. In that one, cars were guided down a roadway by way of a magnetic track. By all accounts it didn’t work very well.
The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 project would seem to have more promise.
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