Prime Mover Magazine

Freightliner’s truck of the future

Freightliner’s truck of the future

Freightliner has made headlines in 2015 with the presentation of the first road registered autonomous heavy vehicle. Will the so-called 'Inspiration' Truck change the game for good? Prime Mover finds out.

In March this year, US truck brand Freightliner stole the show at the Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, Kentucky, with the unveiling of the innovative Super Truck. The result of a massive design exercise, the concept vehicle aimed to combine aerodynamics devices with existing energy recovery technologies to achieve the best possible fuel economy in a heavy-duty vehicle.

Now, just a few months on, the same company has unveiled the world’s first road registered autonomous truck at a glamorous launch event in Las Vegas. According to Freightliner, the ‘Inspiration Truck’ is proof that the North American company – part of the global Daimler Trucks empire – is deeply committed to research and development. Since 2004, the group has spent a staggering $4.3 billion on R&D, with $547 million during 2015 alone, according to Dianne Hames, Daimler Trucks North America’s (DTNA) General Manager of Marketing and Strategy. “If you don’t lead you won’t last,” she said in Las Vegas. “[But] if you can lead, you can also look terrific doing it.”

Dianne’s side comment indicated why Freightliner made the launch such a monumental marketing exercise: to emphasise just how historic a milestone the industry was witnessing. As a case in point, the actual presentation of the vehicle took place at the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, where 60 projectors projected a 30-minute presentation right on to the curved dam wall itself. At 1.17 million lumens, the show will enter the Guinness Book of Records as the highest light output projection in history. The truck itself then entered the scene from the top of a mountain, with helicopters buzzing overhead and TV stations reporting live, before crossing the Black Canyon on the illuminated dam wall.

While the launch of a fully road registered autonomous vehicle might justify such splendour, it must be noted that the technologies behind it are not new. The first demonstration of an autonomous road-going truck took place in July last year when Freightliner’s sister company Mercedes-Benz drove the ‘Future Truck 2025’ along a cordoned-off section of the A14 Autobahn in Germany. What’s different about the US project, which is based on a series production Cascadia model, is that it dared to go a step further and push technology to a point where it could receive full registration for use in the state of Nevada.

Despite common technologies, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck and the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck are therefore seen as independent vehicles that are adapted to the appropriate market and sets of demands of two different continents – so the party in Las Vegas was actually well deserved.

The granting of the registration was definitely a big deal for Freightliner as well as the state of Nevada, and the state’s Governor, Brian Sandoval, is an enthusiastic supporter of advanced technology to the point that he recently approved legislation to allow the introduction of skills-based poker machines into the state.

Acknowledging the similarities to auto pilot systems on aircraft, Freightliner has named the technology package that delivers the Inspiration Truck’s autonomous capabilities the ‘Highway Pilot’. It incorporates a front radar and a stereo camera assistance systems with Adaptive Cruise Control and lane keeping systems, which have been available for some time on Freightliner Cascadia models and the Mercedes-Benz Actros. For licensing on public roads in Nevada, the technology was further developed and the interaction of components extensively tested. As part of the truck’s so-called Marathon Run, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck covered over 16,000 km on a test circuit in Papenburg, Germany.

The result is impressive: As soon as the futuristic vehivle is running on the highway, the driver can activate the Highway Pilot system and the vehicle switches to autonomous mode and adapts to the speed of the surrounding traffic. The driver receives a confirmation message in the instrument cluster that the Highway Pilot is active and can then focus on activities other than driving – such as checking manifests and even communicating outside of the truck to co-ordinate delivery times.

Once active, the system regulates the speed, applies the brakes and steers the truck, which then automatically complies with posted speed limits and regulates the distance from the vehicle ahead. Yet, the Highway Pilot system does not initiate autonomous passing manoeuvres – these have to be executed by the driver, as does entering the highway and changing lanes. The dash readouts keep the driver visually informed about the truck’s current status and the driver can deactivate the Highway Pilot manually to override the system at any time.

If the vehicle is no longer able to process crucial aspects of its environment such as driving through road construction zones or in bad weather, the driver is prompted to retake control. In addition to a visual prompt in the instrument cluster there are also audible alarms to attract the driver’s attention back to the driving task.

As in many areas of modern life, legislation needs to keep up with advances in technology. While Nevada is comfortable allowing the two Inspiration Trucks that currently exist to operate in autonomous mode on its major roads and highways, national vehicle regulations still have to catch up. For exampe, they still require commercial vehicles to be fitted with external rear vision mirrors with a minimum area of 50 square inches – even though the rear view cameras on the concept vehicles provide a wider angle of vision than a classic mirror could. As a result, the Inspiration Truck is fitted with the smallest possible mirrors as a failsafe, even though they are technically redundant.

On the road, a radar unit centred in the front bumper monitors the road at close and long ranges. The long-range sensor goes out to about 250 metres at an aperture angle of 18° and detects vehicles in a long and narrow area. The short-range sensor goes out to about 70m at an angle of 130° and detects vehicles in a wider area that could merge into the lane in front of the truck.

The front radar unit forms the basis for the Adaptive Cruise Control system and the Active Brake Assist system, which are much the same as the systems on the Mercedes-Benz Actros and the production model of the Freightliner Cascadia Evolution, on which the Inspiration Truck is based.

The area in front of the truck is also monitored by a stereo camera mounted above the dashboard on the inside of the windshield. The camera has a range of about 100m and aperture angles of 45° horizontally and 27° vertically. The camera recognises the pavement markings and communicates with the steering gear of the Highway Pilot system to keep the truck in its lane autonomously.

The Adaptive Cruise Control system again uses the same hardware and software as the series production variants of the Actros and the Cascadia Evolution. The system receives the same input signals within the identical range of values and delivers the same functions and safety features. The use of the standard system ensures that the acceleration and braking manoeuvres controlled by the Highway Pilot system are always within the limits of the production vehicle. The active power steering system uses the same hardware as the production vehicles, however, the software has been modified.

The steering gear installed in the Freightliner Inspiration Truck has already been proven on the road in Mercedes-Benz trucks since 2011. The camera of the Lane Keeping Assist system has already completed more than 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of testing and has been used in all Mercedes-Benz Advanced Engineering projects since 2008. Testing of the front radar unit also began in 2008 and has since completed more than two million miles (three million km) in series production and in tests at Mercedes-Benz Cars and Daimler Trucks.

During our test ride in the truck, along what equate to be secondary roads as well as interstate highways, several chase cars deliberately cut in front to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Highway Pilot system. The truck decelerates, brakes or adjusts direction if necessary, all with no input from the driver and in a fraction of the time that it would take a human to react.

As a result, autonomous driving could relieve drivers from tiring and often monotonous long-distance routes, which currently represents a major part of their workload. At the same time, drivers would gain time for other tasks and for communicating. It is conceivable that drivers will take over tasks that today are the domain of the dispatcher and can get their office work done conveniently while on the road.

What’s important to note, though, is that this is not a driverless truck. It requires a properly licensed and endorsed driver to occupy the driver’s seat at all times so drivers’ associations can rest easy (pun intended). The intention is for autonomous driving to fuse truck and driver into an effective and highly economical combination of man and machine.

But it doesn’t change the fact that the benefits of autonomous systems are a reality. Greatly improved road safety and significantly reduced fuel consumption lead the arguments, with reduced vehicle component strain, reduced maintenance and repair, predictive route planning, reduced driver stress, optimised driver time and an improved reputation for the road transport industry being some of the others.

Admittedly, its rather disconcerting to be in the passenger seat travelling along a regular style of road with two-way traffic and have the driver engage the Highway Pilot system and then sit back to unclip his tablet and begin catching up on his emails. Our driver Antonio confessed that it took him “around a day” to accept the autonomous nature of the truck and allow it to perform its functions without his hands hovering close to the steering wheel “just in case”. Now, though, his confidence is contagious.

Yet there are still several short comings that Freightliner will continue to address. Not such a problem in Australia, but snow on the road can cover the lane markings, rendering the lane holding system ineffective. Similarly, wet roads at night make it difficult for the cameras to pick up the white lines. The solutions to these challenges may lay with modifying the road infrastructure with sensors being embedded onto road surfaces in the future.

Throughout the launch event, the Freightliner executives present stressed that it will be at least a decade and possibly even two before autonomous trucks will be developed to the point that they become commonly available to the market. Australia’s “tyranny of distance” will make an ideal environment for this technology to flourish once availability becomes an economic reality.

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