You will have heard by now about the truck that drives itself. Introduced with much fanfare in Germany last month, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 is not actually driverless, as some reports have implied. 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 organize his next load. Or perhaps watch his daughter’s ballet recital via Skype. You name it, he can do it, even if the truck is rolling along at 50 mph in traffic.
What he can’t do is leave his seat.
The self-driving Mercedes-Benz was put through its paces for the press and others during a lengthy demonstration on a yet-to-be-opened stretch of German autobahn. The Actros cabover with trailer attached was driven at speeds of 50 mph in more or less realistic traffic.
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 service truck. Once past, it 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 these days. Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler trucks and buses chief, hopes to make this Highway Pilot assistance system an option in production vehicles by 2025.
As if that weren’t enough, ZF and ZF Lenksysteme (a joint venture of ZF and Bosch) showed us a truly driverless truck the following week, also in Germany. That one’s entirely different, but also impressive, because in that case we’re talking about an 82-foot-long combination rig (tractor with semi-trailer and full trailer behind) being backed up to a loading dock with no driver at all. Fingers on a tablet screen 200 feet away can do the job, albeit at very low yard speeds.
But let’s go back to Daimler and the autonomous vision. Yes, that truck and its onboard technology are remarkable, but they’re nearly beside the point. We already have high-tech tools like lane assistance and active cruise control in use at some fleets. Trucks sporting such things can be kept in their lane and brake before they whack the vehicle in front automatically. The driver theoretically could have his feet up on the dashboard if he wanted to, so the leap to autonomous is actually a relatively small one in technical terms.
It’s revolutionary for sure, but more because of what it means on other fronts. It depends, for example, on vehicle-to-vehicle communication. All vehicles on the road will “talk” to one another and trade information about speed and position, for example, and thus be able to “mingle” safely with little or no driver intervention, at least on highways and major roads. They’ll “talk” to construction sites and adjust speed accordingly.
At this point, we have to talk about the so-called “Internet of Things.” In a nutshell that refers to connectivity at the next level where “things” communicate with other “things,” instead of just people communicating with other people.
The convergence of those two is what’s going on here. It’s not really just about an extremely high-tech truck.
It’s actually a vision of what’s possible with transport systems and with society at large. It’s about connectivity right across the board. It’s about robots. It’s really the fourth industrial revolution.
People will be hard to convince, but like it or not, some variation on the autonomous truck is coming. For us down in the trenches, in theory, it will mean greater efficiency, less traffic congestion, and increased safety.