When it comes to revolutionary technologies, it's often hard to grasp just how close they are to making an impact on the real world. That's why I was so surprised when last week I found myself riding shotgun in an 18-wheel big rig that, at the flip of a switch on the steering wheel, drove itself down the highways of Las Vegas.
I was in the Freightliner Inspiration, the world’s first road-ready self-driving truck. It uses the "Highway Pilot" system that parent company Daimler, which hosted the event, first previewed when it announced it was testing it in the Mercedes Future Truck 2025.
Self-driving cars are another one of these technologies that aren’t as far out on the horizon as, say, a flying car. They’re something we’ve learned a lot about in the last few years, and many companies are working on them. Porting this technology into the trucking world raises a whole new crop of problems, however. Regulatory and political barriers are preventing states from even allowing this to be tested, and aside from that there are massive technical challenges that stand in the way of the whole system working, too. But that didn’t stop Daimler from making a monumental deal out of its own entry into the market.
Daimler, which has over 40 percent of the US trucking market, brought nearly 200 members of the press to a parking lot adjacent to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. We passed through a giant arch that read "Freightliner Proving Ground," and found an oasis of giant white tents.
The Inspiration was teased to the press at this location early in the afternoon, but it was quickly driven off the premises by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, the head of Daimler Trucks North America, almost as soon as the giant car cover was removed. (It was unclear whether they let the truck drive itself once they got on the road.)
They were saving the official reveal for that evening, when we were brought to the Hoover Dam. There, the company had organized an event befitting the locale: there was a 45-minute presentation projected onto nearly the entire 726-foot height of the dam that included a brief history lesson of Freightliner, another of the dam’s construction, and a live discussion with Daimler’s executives hosted by Rutledge Wood, host of the US version of Top Gear. After all of that, the Inspiration truck finally wound its way down the roads on the Arizona side until it made its way across the Hoover Dam. (It was unclear whether the truck drove itself onto the dam.)
For many reasons, Daimler has a right to be excited. By partly automating its trucking system, the company could offer trucks that are more fuel efficient, cutting down on emissions (up to 5 percent, Daimler claims). It works, but the many obstacles loom large.
The truck that Daimler debuted last week is one of only two that are licensed to drive on public roads in Nevada, and only four other states allow testing of autonomous vehicles right now. (Arizona isn’t one of them, which makes the decision to debut the truck by driving over a landmark that spans two states a bit laughable.) That’s a big issue; you can’t perform any interstate commerce if you can’t go between states. But it’s also a problem because Nevada has a particularly stable climate, which means that the 10,000 miles of testing on the Inspiration Truck have been pretty homogenous, something Bernhard freely admits. "We still have to see how this thing performs in the rain, the sun, cold days, subzero [temperatures], and very hot," he says.
Right now, autonomous trucks are stuck in Nevada
Perhaps as problematic as the regulatory issues Daimler faces is that the Highway Pilot system — for now, at least — relies on well-painted safety lines on the roads that the trucks drive down. If the lines aren’t clearly visible to the truck’s cameras, the system just won’t work. That may sound like a negligible issue, but we’re notoriously bad at maintaining our infrastructure as a country.
The next day we returned to the Proving Ground to find six trucks — two Inspirations, two of the company’s aerodynamic SuperTrucks, and two of its Cascadia trucks, which the Inspiration is based on. I hopped into the Inspiration and found a spartan, futuristic cab — there was a dynamic, full-color LCD display in front of the driver and a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 to his right embedded in the smooth dashboard that curved down to the hardwood floors.
The Freightliner driver took us out of the speedway grounds and onto Nevada State Route 604. Less than a mile down the highway, the truck alerted him that the Highway Pilot system was available. He tapped a button, took his hands and feet off the wheel and pedals, and our 20-ton vehicle was driving itself.
We meandered down the right lane of SR604 until it met up with Interstate 15, which we took back to the speedway. All the on- and off-ramps were handled manually, which meant only a portion of the drive was autonomous. For the most part, the ride was unremarkable, which is essentially the whole point. There was just one slight curve in SR604 that afforded the only uneasy moment; while there was no doubt in my mind the truck would make it through, my gut definitely felt otherwise.
In between thumb twiddling and glances out the driver’s side window, my driver-turned-passenger explained that the cameras in the windshield and the radar in the front bumper will assess road conditions in real time and tell the driver whether the Highway Pilot system is available. For the purposes of the day’s demonstrations, however, there were GPS-designated zones on each highway that made the autopilot system operable. The driver is in control of the speed — Inspiration doesn’t have the ability to read speed limit signs — and if the Highway Pilot deems the road unsuitable or notices an obstacle ahead, it will begin visual and audible countdowns and alarms. To regain control, the driver simply returns his hands to the wheel.
Representatives spent both days talking ad nauseam about how Highway Pilot won’t completely obsolesce the role of the truck driver, which is clearly a critical component to gaining acceptance from truck drivers and their supporters. Daimler president and CEO Martin Daum said it will "enhance" the driver’s capabilities, and Bernhard says it makes the job "much more attractive." They envision a world where the driver has more time to manage the logistics of the trip, but it’s easy to see why people might be concerned about other distractions.
Bernhard said there’s no plan to install sensors or cameras to ensure a driver doesn’t nap or play Angry Birds during the drive, but Daimler might not have to — for now, even with the autopilot engaged, accident liability remains with the driver. That’s as good of a motivation to keep a driver in his seat as any.
While Nevada might not let Daimler test a panoply of climates, the state’s long, straight, hypnosis-inducing roads did let the company test driver drowsiness. "The results of our research are very clear," Bernhard says. "We measured brain activity with [and] without autonomous function. It clearly shows that driver drowsiness decreases by about 25 percent when the truck is operating in autonomous mode."
That’s a big deal, because driver fatigue is one of the leading causes of the hundreds of thousands of large truck crashes that happen annually, and those result in some 4,000 deaths.
As the Inspiration Truck drove us down the sun-baked highway, it was easy to see how the semi-autonomous capabilities could help. The wheel twisted back and forth as the Highway Pilot system guided the truck between the boundaries of our lane, fighting the wind and the truck’s momentum. All that correction would normally be done by the driver, and on long drives that take up nearly half a day, all those little corrections add up.
But buried in the multiple speeches across the two-day event, one talking point kept emerging that made little sense. While Bernhard and Daum boasted about how the Inspiration Truck would eventually mitigate driver drowsiness, they both spoke about how automating part of the whole process will let drivers make longer runs. At one point, Daum even said that it’s up to Daimler to prove to regulators "that driver fatigue is decreased, so guys who use support systems can have longer hours of service."
There's still a long road ahead for Daimler
Whatever the case, Daimler is still a long way off from integrating this technology into its entire fleet, something the company admits in the supplemental press materials from last week’s event. There, the company says its goal is to offer Highway Pilot "in the middle of the coming decade." That's a good thing, because a lot of these issues like regulations and infrastructure still need to be resolved. There is a wealth of others, too — Highway Pilot isn't as aware of its surroundings as something like Google's self-driving car, even though the two are both considered "level 3" autonomous. None of these will be settled easily.
One thing Daimler says it won't do is speed up adoption by licensing the technology. Not only could that cut into its stranglehold on the market, the company claims that, since it’s been specifically built to run with its own drivetrain, Highway Pilot would require too much retooling for another trucking company to integrate. So until Daimler’s autopilot is fully developed, its drivers will have to tackle the highways the old-fashioned way: stay awake at all costs.