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May 11, 2015 2:00 PM, EDT

Video: Freightliner’s ‘Inspiration’ for Autonomous Driving

Truck Licensed to Travel on Nevada Highways
TT's Neil Abt, DTNA's Martin Daum via YouTube

By Neil Abt, Editorial Director

This story appears in the May 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

LAS VEGAS — Freightliner Trucks made the largest splash yet in the development of autonomous-driving trucks, receiving the world’s first license to operate on public highways. The license came from Nevada.

Dubbed the Freightliner Inspiration, the vehicle will “inspire our customers and the whole world,” said Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler AG’s commercial vehicles unit.

“We believe that this will help save lives and prevent costly accidents,” said Martin Daum, president of Portland, Oregon-based Daimler Trucks North America, parent of Freightliner.

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Throughout the May 5-6 event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Hoover Dam, company executives stressed there is no immediate timetable for production, that regulatory and other hurdles remain and that any reference to this being a “driverless” truck is inaccurate.

“We don’t want to make the driver obsolete,” Daum said in an interview with Transport Topics. “The human brain is still the best computer money can’t buy. So nothing will replace the driver.

What we are doing are driver-assistance systems that make the life of the driver easier.”

Like last year’s showcase of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, Bernhard touted the safety benefits of an autonomous system “that never gets tired.”

He cited a high percentage of truck-involved accidents that involve driver fatigue and discussed scientific research that has shown a significant reduction in drowsiness when operating in the autonomous mode. The company also presented a vision of these vehicles traveling in a platoon formation, reducing drivers’ workload while drafting to boost fuel efficiency.

Unlike Future Truck, which has yet to receive clearance to operate on public roads, the Inspiration has been cleared to travel on Nevada highways.

Both vehicles utilize “Highway Pilot,” incorporating cameras and radar with lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking and other monitoring systems.

Other than advanced steering, many of the safety and performance products are available as part of the Detroit Assurance safety system on Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution.

At the event, 200 journalists attending from around the world had the opportunity to test drive the two Inspiration trucks.

The 20-minute loop starting and ending at the speedway covered a stretch of Interstate 15, with the driver switching in and out of autonomous mode on several occasions.

He had to remain in the seat the entire time but was able to interact with passengers without keeping his hands on the wheel. As the truck approached the exit ramp, an audible beep and countdown clock alerted him to retake control. Had he failed to do so, the truck would have slowed and automatically steered to the side of the road.

The Inspiration “will help us to increase [autonomous technology] further,” Daum said. It is a first step, but an important step. Other steps will follow.”

Regulatory, licensing and liability concerns were the most-often referenced hurdles by company officials, as was the need to gain public approval.

Bernhard said no additional highway infrastructure is required, other than “nice white strips,” because the truck’s system recognizes and uses road markings. But additional enhancements of the technology will be required, especially for poor weather or to better identify highway signs and nonmetallic objects such as wildlife.

For now, the two trucks will remain as test vehicles. Though legal in Nevada, the trucks now need a second licensed driver — though not necessarily one with a commercial license — while in operation. The details for licensing requirements are among the matters yet to be finalized.

The formal unveiling of the Inspiration was the most dramatic — and record-breaking — moment.

The 726-foot-high dam was turned into the largest-ever projection screen, earning Freightliner the Guinness World Record for highest light output projection at 1.17 million lumens. As 60 projectors created an image with a resolution of 4,592 × 2,048 pixels from a half-mile away, the truck navigated the narrow switchbacks leading over the dam.

That took place hours after Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval appeared at a kick-off event, presenting Bernhard the first license plate for an autonomous truck. With Bernard at the controls, the two took the partially camouflaged Inspiration on an inaugural journey.

Sandoval hailed the occasion as “a historic day in the areas of transportation and innovation” and a “monumental day for the human race.”

In response, Daum praised Sandoval’s business sense since taking office in 2011.

“It is only thanks to your open-mindedness we can be here today for our world premiere,” he said.

Nevada was targeted for the launch of the Inspiration because it is one of four states, plus the District of Columbia, with laws regulating autonomous-vehicle operation. The other states are Michigan, Florida and California.