Hands-off on the Highway

May 2015, - WebXclusive

by Jim Park, Equipment Editor - Also by this author

SHARING TOOLS        | Print Subscribe

Driver Antonio Edgar, an electrical engineer in the vehicle test group, kept his hands in his lap while operating at highway speeds. Photo by Jim Park
Driver Antonio Edgar, an electrical engineer in the vehicle test group, kept his hands in his lap while operating at highway speeds. Photo by Jim Park
Whether or not we will ever share the road with truly driverless trucks is a story for another day. But Daimler Trucks North America brought that possibility a little closer to reality with a full-blown test-drive of the technology that will be instrumental in making it happen.

Editors and reporters from all over the world rode in trucks that steered themselves along a busy highway, right alongside other trucks, motorcycles, cars and everything else that shares trucking's workspace. I'll bet none of those other drivers was even aware of the fact that the truck driver's hands were in his lap much of the time.

Daimler Trucks North America showcased the North American version of its autonomous commercial vehicle, called the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, at a global media event in Las Vegas, Nevada, the first state to permit the operation of autonomous trucks.

The technology that supports hands-free operation of the truck is still in its infancy, and so is the terminology we use to describe it. To be clear, the Inspiration Truck, and subsequent generations of the truck, will not be driverless trucks – they will not pull away from loading docks crammed with freight, navigate to the nearest Interstate and motor on through the hours and possibly days it takes to arrive at destination with no human onboard.

The Inspiration Truck has the capacity to be operated autonomously. The driver can safely release the steering wheel and take his or her feet away from the pedals while the truck maintains its speed and lane position without human intervention. At least for now, the regulations in Nevada require the driver to remain at the controls at all times (and to have a second driver in the passenger seat).

As Martin Zeilinger, head of Advanced Engineering at Daimler Trucks AG, explained, there are already a lot of automated safety features on today's trucks, such as antilock brakes, cruise control, even electronic stability control.

"The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration currently defines five levels of vehicle automation," he explained. Level 0 is no automation. In Level 1, "function specific" automation, certain functions such as ABS brakes are automated. At Level 2, you find combined-function automation where at least two primary controls can assist the driver, such as adaptive cruise control and integrated powertrain management (IPM), where the driver maintains steering control but the system is controlling throttle and brakes.

Level 3 is where we find limited self driving automation, where the driver can cede full control of safety-critical functions to the vehicle under certain conditions. The driver, however, must be able to take over at any time. Level 4 would be a full self-driving vehicle. Such a system would not allow driver control at any point during the trip other than entering navigation information.

"The Inspiration Truck is a prime example of a Level 3," Zeilinger said, "but there is still a lot of road ahead of us before Freightliner goes into production with Level 3 technology."

Highway Pilot's dash display is decidely futureistic. The screen turns red and an alarm sounds when the driver is required ro resume control. Courtesy of DTNA.
Highway Pilot's dash display is decidely futureistic. The screen turns red and an alarm sounds when the driver is required ro resume control. Courtesy of DTNA.
Al Pearson, director of Freightliner's vehicle test group, said Freightiner is not interested in pursuing Level 4. "The emphasis at DTNA is exploring Level 3 through the Freightliner Inspiration Truck," he says. "We not only want the driver to be in the truck, we want the truck to be the driver's partner."

While it may sound futuristic, much of the hard technology that makes limited autonomous control possible is already deployed in current production models like the Cascadia Evolution. These include the Detroit Assurance suite of safety systems (active brake assist, adaptive cruise control and optional lane departure warning) and lane departure warning systems. The lane keeping system on the Inspiration Truck builds on the current LDW technology using a stereo camera system to maintain trucks' lane position.

Combined, all the technology that makes limited self-control possible is called Highway Pilot.

On the road

While no one other than DTNA authorized drivers were allowed to operate the Innovation Truck, reporters were eager for rides in the trucks -- there are currently two of them on the road in North America.

Most of the group got a 20-minute ride, beginning at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway north of the city, just off of Interstate 15. The ride consisted of about 3 miles along Las Vegas Blvd, 4 miles along I-15. During both of those stretches, our driver, Antonio Edgar, an electrical engineer in the vehicle test group, kept his hands in his lap. He did negotiate the turns onto and off of the freeway, as well as maneuvering through the parking lot and side streets, but it was hands off the rest of the time.

Inspiration Truck ready for test rides at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Photo: Jim Park
Inspiration Truck ready for test rides at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Photo: Jim Park
This test drive was notable because it took place on a public highway, not a track or a closed course. Consequently, there were no opportunities for evasive maneuvers or stunt driving. It was actually a rather uneventful affair. However, it was rather windy during the drive, and I found it remarkable how well the truck maintained its lane position even in the stiff crosswinds. I had driven another truck over the same course an hour earlier and had to work to keep it between the lines.

The Innovation Truck was able to maintain lane position with much finer steering inputs than I could have made. The steering wheel pivoted back and forth constantly by four or five degrees, but the movement was barely noticeable in the cab. We didn't run into a situation where a lane change was required, but on a stretch of Las Vegas Blvd, an S-turn was required and the truck negotiated that without the aid of the driver. It was a very deliberate movement, first to the left, then straight; then to the right and then straight once again. The trailer tracked perfectly through the curves.

Clearly the technology is up to the task of maintaining good lane position and negotiating simple turns. We are told it can do more, and with the predictive cruise, adaptive cruise and active braking all looking out for everyone's safety, it's said to be a perfectly safe vehicle.

Among the obvious applications for such technology is platooning, where two, three or more trucks follow a lead truck in close proximity to gain the benefits of slipstreaming. Following at a distance of perhaps 25 feet at 65 mph would be frowned upon universally by safety departments, but with all the technology Highway Pilot brings to the game, it could be a serious -- and safe -- fuel saver. When the lead truck brakes, the following trucks can apply brakes in a faction of a second compared to a second or more in human reaction time.

Most of the sensors and controlers for the Highway Pilot system are already in place in production trucks such as the Cascadia Evolution. Courtesy of DTNA
Most of the sensors and controlers for the Highway Pilot system are already in place in production trucks such as the Cascadia Evolution. Courtesy of DTNA
The system is fairly simple on the surface. The camera recognizes lane markings and communicates through the computer controls with the steering gear. While Cascadia Evolution uses adaptive cruise control, the Inspiration Truck has ACC plus, which combines active cruise and distance control in combination with the ability to stop and go without driver intervention. It can control distance and speed from 0 mph to maximum rated speed, currently limited to 55 mph.

What we saw in Las Vegas could be the near-term future of freight transportation, provided all the necessary regulatory approvals eventually fall into place. The Innovation Truck and its immediate successors will not replace drivers. They are intended to relieve some of the drudgery and boredom of driving and in the process make it safer for everyone.

"The Innovation Truck never gets tired, it never gets distracted and it never takes its full attention off the task," says DTNA president and CEO, Martin Daum in opening remarks to the session.

However, there will be those who continue to think the way some pilots did when early versions of autopilot were first introduced.

"The perfect cockpit team consists of an autopilot, a pilot and a dog," goes an old aviation joke. The autopilot is there to fly the plane, the pilot is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything."


  1. 1. Big Yellower [ May 07, 2015 @ 04:47AM ]

    It's a great idea . But, ultimately seriously flawed it would a (1)terrorist wet dream a big rig with no driver and load with 45,000 lbs of TNT and used to attack a major city or event. (2) a Hackers wet dream too why not cause a massive pileup on highway or block the highway in protest.
    No system is unhackable. They can hack highway signs . (3) hijackers wet dream. Easy to reroute a big rig, disable the GPS and send it where they want and owner of the rig will be helpless.. If FTL decides to deploy these in the US or elsewhere it's committing financial suicide..
    One accident and they will be sued for hundreds of millions of dollars to the billions of dollars for recklessness to the public..A big rig with out a human driver driving it . Is a danger to public and to our way of life..

  2. 2. John Bazelewich [ May 07, 2015 @ 05:49AM ]

    What a waste of effort. If Diamler wants to waste it's resources fine. Just don't ask for public money for this research.
    We already have autonomous vehicles to move large quantities over distance with a vastly reduced carbon footprint -it's called a train-.200 trailers moved by 2 people. Our focus should be on more intermodal with drayage for final delivery and forget about this nonsense. Then we can stop crying about all of the regulations for hours of service and restarts.

  3. 3. DAN [ May 07, 2015 @ 06:04AM ]

    Lets see now,,,,,the article states "we" are getting this wrong and now the trucks are "Monitored" by a driver sitting in ( Sleeping) in the drivers seat ??
    That last commentary was so misleading I thought it may have been written by Mr. Obama in his spare time.

    So lets see what the dictionary definition has to say about the word autonomous

    Also found in: Medical, Legal, Financial, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
    au·ton·o·mous (ô-tŏn′ə-məs)
    1. Not controlled by others or by outside forces;
    independent: an autonomous judiciary; an autonomous division of a
    corporate conglomerate.
    2. Independent in mind or judgment; self-directed.
    a. Independent of the laws of another state or government; self- governing.
    b. Of or relating to a self-governing entity: an autonomous legislature.
    c. Self-governing with respect to local or internal affairs: an autonomous region of a country.
    4. Autonomic.

    Well I guess that clears that up, Nope,, these trucks are not autonomous by definition, they actually have a driver in the drivers seat required to monitor the tractor while in operation, unless along those long boring stretches of hi-way the driver nods off, but we in the trucking industry know that never happens !

    What...wait ...was that my exit I just passed?....holy crud you stupid truck!!

    I can hear it now,,,,,the truck made me do it !

    As a commercial pilot, I embrace new technology, however take this rig back to the east coast in cities where the roadway infrastructure is crumbling before our very eyes, I don't think it stands a chance in that environment,

  4. 4. Robert [ May 07, 2015 @ 06:35AM ]

    Let's all line up to be the driver that will baby sit this experiment. An experiment that will conclude by phasing us all out.

  5. 5. John Mullen [ May 07, 2015 @ 05:26PM ]

    Decades away If it ever becomes a reality. It is now over 30 years ago that I watched a car run on a wire in the road at the Transportation Research Center in E. Liberty Ohio. It ran on atrack seperate from the main one I was on. It ran thru curves up and down grades, stopped and started while the driver sat with a clipboard taking notes. The project of two Universities. It never came to reality.
    Not a solution to the driver shortage !

  6. 6. Dennis [ May 07, 2015 @ 06:42PM ]

    I found all the comments funny. First some of the responses indicate that the person didn't read the whole article. Second there was a time that people said the train would never work, the horseless carriage would never work, the areoplane would never fly and we would never be able to fly in space. I guess those never worked, live all the horses pulling wagons full of freight.
    They aren't saying that this is happening next week, but like it or not it is the future. It will work. Probably not this particular truck but one that comes about because of this truck will be the future.

  7. 7. Brian [ May 09, 2015 @ 05:21PM ]

    Well us drivers are gonna be phased out what I think of this is bull shit sure as fact I don't wanna a computer doing my job for me

  8. 8. Old Lady Trucker [ May 14, 2015 @ 07:13AM ]

    It depends on your dream of driving a big truck. Back when I was a child the idea that there would be air assisted braking system for big trucks was just an engineers research. Then of all things shifting only one gear shift and a button. Then it was such a thing as enough power to pull a mountain road without shifting all the way down to the 'low side'. Then came of all things 'cruise control'. It took my 70 years to see the research of a 'driverless' truck. However the cost of purchasing the goods those trucks can carry has gone way beyond what we can afford. For those of us still lining on limited budgets, and the many more who will never get into a higher income because of all that money being spent on 'the next step' who is going to support all that 'reality of the future'?

  9. 9. Barbara Frits [ August 04, 2015 @ 12:18PM ]

    It is inconceivable to me that any truck manufacturer would put a big rig out on our congested highways that have taken the control of these Freighliner Cascadias out of the control of the drivers. I have read the paragraph about "On The Road" where a group of people were taken out on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and onto I-15 for about 4 miles with the driver of this demonstration being an "electrical engineer" (not a seasoned truck driver) keeping his hands on his lap, only using them to negotiate turns. Why the hell were these people not taken up onto one of the steep passes in the NW and being made to maneuver this truck (fully loaded) coming off these passes into a highly populated city? Let's see how well this group would have done doing this -- with a runaway truck and the driver having no control (a seasoned trucking veteran of almost 50 years with over 5,000,000 safe miles driven, having no control of this Freightliner Cascadia coming down these steep passes several times over. With the last incident being so bad coming down a steep pass in Northern CA with no control of his truck, he had to come back home as all he could see was having to step over bodies as he approached the bottom of this pass.). These are the kinds of conditions these demonstrations MUST be done in; not on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and only about 4 miles on I-15. If this seasoned truck driver had caused a massive pile-up with many fatalities due to HIS control of the truck being taken away from him, who would have gone to jail -- this chip that Daimer has put into these Freightliner Cascadias or the driver?? I come from a long history of truck drivers (all of them accident free) and have never been afraid of tractor trailers on the highways, but I am now!! I, nor any other innocent drivers on the highway, would never stand a chance with this runaway trucks that Daimer/Freightliner has put out on the highways!! SAFETY comes first; not driverless trucks!!


Comment On This Story

Comment: (Maximum 2000 characters)  
Leave this field empty:
* Please note that every comment is moderated.


We offer e-newsletters that deliver targeted news and information for the entire fleet industry.


ELDs and Telematics

sponsored by
sponsor logo

Scott Sutarik from Geotab will answer your questions and challenges

View All

Sleeper Cab Power

Steve Carlson from Xantrex will answer your questions and challenges

View All