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This is the first road-legal big rig that can drive itself

Freightliner shows its Inspiration Truck in Las Vegas

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Last night, atop the Hoover Dam, Freightliner unveiled the Inspiration Truck — a partially autonomous big rig that could save lives, mitigate driver fatigue and stress, and reduce CO2 emissions up to 5 percent. Daimler, which owns Freightliner, says it has done more than 10,000 miles of testing on the truck. And now it's street-legal, having been officially granted one of Nevada's "Autonomous Vehicle" license plates (the first for a commercial truck) by Nevada governor Brian Sandoval at a media event before the unveiling.

The Inspiration Truck and Daimler's underlying "Highway Pilot" technology isn't meant to replace truck drivers completely. Instead, it's meant to solve the problem of fatigued driving, something that plagues truck drivers who have to pull long shifts. According to Daimler, 90 percent of truck crashes result from driver error, and in one out of every eight of those cases driver fatigue plays a role.

Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler AG's truck boss, says that the Inspiration Truck mitigates that problem significantly. At a media event before the unveiling, he spoke about how taking control away from drivers positively impacts their ability to focus for long periods of time. "We measured brain activity with or without autonomous function, and it clearly shows that driver drowsiness decreases by about 25 percent when the truck is operating in autonomous mode," he said.

Freightliner self-driving big rig in photos

Daimler and Freightliner chose Nevada as the venue for the unveiling because the state was the first in the nation to put regulations in place that allow the testing of autonomous vehicles. (Three others and the District of Columbia have since followed.) Nevada is also home to some of the first university curriculums dealing with autonomous vehicles, like the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Innovations Center found at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Inspiration Truck is considered "level 3" on NHTSA's automation scale. That's the second-highest level of automation — the same that Google's self-driving cars currently operate on. It means that the vehicle is advanced enough to enable the driver to cede full control in certain traffic or environmental conditions. The driver can interrupt and regain control, but the vehicle should allow a "comfortable transition time."

As with other self-driving cars, that level of automation brings up a number of issues, some of which were discussed earlier in the day. A big one is liability — if the driver is ceding control to an automated system, where does the blame get placed if something goes wrong?

Where does the blame get placed if something goes wrong?

Bernhard compared it to the control a pilot has over a commercial airliner. "Technically speaking these vehicles are operating 'partly automated,'" he said. "So [the driver] is still in charge of what happens. He’s responsible."

Martin Daum, the president and CEO of Daimler Trucks, hedged on that answer slightly more, saying that liability is not a question for today, but for the future. "Certainly before it becomes mass production the liability question has to be discussed and has to be solved by the regulators," Daum said. "Ultimately it’s the people — like with any law — it’s the people that decide and the industry has to follow."

Freightliner self-driving big rig in photos

Another big issue is whether the Inspiration Truck will need any additional infrastructure as its production scales up. Bernhard said no, and he and the company plan to show us what he means at a much more hands-on event later today. The only thing that can assist them right now are the white guidelines painted onto the roads, which he claims are "fully intact" or can be repaired at a low cost in many states. While things like a broader infrastructure or vehicle-to-vehicle communication would bring additional benefits, the Inspiration Truck can operate at level 3 autonomy without any extra help. "That vehicle does not need any support other than nice white stripes," he said.

We saw another one of Daimler's divisions tease its own autonomous truck last October when Mercedes announced the "Future Truck 2025." According to Daimler, the "Highway Pilot" technology behind the Mercedes version is the same that powers the Inspiration Truck, though the designs are very different — the Future Truck 2025 is thoroughly conceptual and futuristic, while Freightliner's version looks like it could roll down the highway today. And, in fact, it did at the end of the media preview at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. With Bernhard at the wheel, he and Nevada's governor Brian Sandoval drove the truck right off the premises — though it's uncertain if they let the truck take over once they were on the road.

"Obviously there's some more testing we have to do," Bernhard said. "We have to see how this thing performs in the rain, the sun, cold days, or at subzero." That's something that Daimler will have to wait for, as other states could be slow to adapt the same self-driving-friendly regulation that Nevada already has. Bernhard also pointed out that just getting a "patchwork of states" on board won't help — particularly since big rigs often operate interstate — and as Daum sees it, state regulation is just the beginning. Federal regulation will be necessary before we see a fleet of Inspiration Trucks (or other trucks running Daimler's Highway Pilot technology) swarm the highways.

Freightliner self-driving big rig in photos


The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a modified version of the company's "Cascadia Evolution" model. Most of the truck is the same, with the exception of the Highway Pilot automation technology. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Inspiration Truck is how much it looks like Freightliner's non-autonomous offerings.