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September 21, 2015 2:45 AM, EDT

Freightliner Road Tests ‘Inspiration’ to Demonstrate Autonomous Assistance

Jonathan S. Reiskin – Transport Topics
This story appears in the Sept. 21 print edition of Transport Topics.

LAS VEGAS — Freightliner Trucks road-tested its autonomous Inspiration truck for a second time here Sept. 15, demonstrating its ease of use and what the technology can do to improve highway safety, particularly as an aid for drivers.

Each modified Cascadia tractor has two cameras that give the truck binocular vision for depth perception. The tractor also uses two types of radar: Long-distance radar shoots out a beam 820 feet ahead with an 18-degree view, and a short radar looks out 230 feet but with a 130-degree scope.

“You start with the human eye, but they can see only so much. Then you add cameras and radar to that,” said Diane Hames, a general manager at Daimler Trucks North America, Freightliner’s parent company.

The Inspiration truck was first unveiled in May during a high-profile event at the Hoover Dam that received worldwide attention.

Hames likened the autonomous assistance system to “bionics for drivers,” referring to the 1970s hit television program “The Six Million Dollar Man,” about a badly injured military test pilot who was rehabilitated with man-made body parts, including an eye that found targets miles away.

For truck drivers, concentrating steadily for 11 hours a day is tedious and mentally draining. Autonomous assistance, however, reduces fatigue by steering, braking and accelerating on interstates and other large highways.

Places where “you can get in a lane and go” are the ideal application for autonomous assistance, said Mary Aufdemberg, a DTNA marketing director.

Inspiration stays within a lane by viewing white or yellow highway lines — dashed or solid — with its two cameras. The system is programmed to know its limitations.

It yields control of the truck to the driver quickly if he or she either pumps the brakes or uses the steering wheel.

If the system cannot find any highway lines, whether because of snow or faded paint, it signals for the driver to take control, first with a visual warning and then with a sound alert. If the driver fails to do so, the system starts braking and the truck eventually stops.

For that reason, city or suburban driving with lots traffic lights and stop signs is not a good environment for the system, Aufdemberg said.

The two autonomous trucks have Nevada tags, as that is the only state so far that allows trucks to operate on its roads with autonomous assistance. The trucks are usually garaged at the company’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, but travel back and forth between there and Nevada atop low-boy trailers.

Although autonomous assistance frees up time for a driver, the driver must remain behind the wheel and ready to jump in when needed.

Napping in the sleeper is not an option, nor is reading a book or magazine. Texting would still be illegal.

Hames said having a conversation with a hands-free device would be a good option. While the National Transportation Safety Board recommends against even hand-free calls for now, Hames said Inspiration provides enough assistance that that recommendation could change.

Beyond reading road lines for steering control, the system uses adaptive cruise control for positioning the truck safely behind the vehicle ahead.

During the road test, Freightliner offered five occasional truck drivers instruction on how to manage the Inspiration. They earned an autonomous commercial vehicle endorsement for their CDLs valid only in Nevada.

Company executives gave no date for commercial sales and said Inspiration should still be considered a concept vehicle rather than a prototype nearly ready for sale.

They also said autonomous vehicles should be considered an aid to drivers rather than as a way to replace them.

“We’re really focused on safety with this, and I think that has been obscured by the ‘driverless’ factor,” Hames said.

Hames said autonomous assistance is a third-generation safety system. Passive systems, such as seat belts, helped protect a driver or passenger and came first. Active safety systems were the second generation, and they helped mitigate or avoid accidents with anti-lock brakes and electronic-stability control.

The third generation is based on interactive safety systems. Hames said multiple systems within a vehicle communicate with each other to improve safety, as with autonomous assistance, and there is also the possibility of connecting with other vehicles and with roads themselves in what are called connected vehicles and highways.

She said a fully autonomous truck that needs no driver probably will not happen in her lifetime, but a truck that uses autonomous assistance for a driver, such as Inspiration, is much more realistic.