What is an autonomous vehicle?

It is important to start off by understanding that an autonomous vehicle (AV) in terms of an on-highway truck does not mean a driverless vehicle. In fact, the technology being developed as part of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck requires that a qualified truck driver with a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL) be in the cab and at the controls.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines vehicle automation using the following five levels:

  • No Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls—brake, steering, throttle and motive power—at all times.
  • Function-Specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.
  • Combined-Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.
  • Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and, in those conditions, to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.
  • Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

Does the technological capability exist for AV trucks on the highway?

The fact is that many commercial trucks and passenger cars already have Level 1 and 2 function-specific automation in operation. The technology exists for Level 3 operation, as Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) has demonstrated. Such technology is well suited for on-highway applications for long-haul commercial trucks. These trucks will still require trained drivers and will not operate in AV mode once they leave highway conditions, such as when they make local deliveries. The move toward AV technology is based on the advantages these systems offer when it comes to safety, fuel efficiency, highway congestion and environmental standards.

Why is Daimler Trucks investing in AV technology?

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck promises to unlock autonomous vehicle advancements that reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion, enhance driver experience, improve connectivity and safeguard the environment. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck illustrates Daimler Trucks North America’s commitment to customer value through consistent investment in the latest technology and delivery of the best commercial trucks on today’s roads.

Is it legal to drive the Freightliner Inspiration Truck on American roads?

Yes. It is legal to drive the Inspiration Truck on American roads. Some states—Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan—and the District of Columbia, have specific requirements related to the operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads in those states and those requirements must be met. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck became the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the U.S. during the Infinite Inspiration event in Nevada.

Do regulations create barriers to the development of commercial truck AV technologies?

Daimler Trucks North America believes that federal and state laws and regulations of both commercial and passenger vehicles are important in order to maintain the safety of highways and roads. When it comes to some of the advancements being made in technology that are a part of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, our hope is that governments will look closely at regulations that, if updated to match advancements in technology, will actually make roads safer while having benefits like improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions.

One example of how regulations could be changed to better accommodate current technology is in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 111 requirement for outside rearview mirrors for trucks and buses. Currently, the standard requires outside rearview mirrors to provide the driver with a view to the rear along both sides of the vehicle. Through the use of camera-monitor systems, research has demonstrated that not only can these systems provide the same field of view that mirrors provide, but that blind spots can also be eliminated. In addition, if these camera-monitor systems were allowed to replace exterior rearview mirrors, vehicle aerodynamics could be significantly improved, resulting in fuel efficiency improvements.

What is the greatest barrier to autonomous vehicles: technology, infrastructure, regulations, costs, customer acceptance, driver resistance, public perceptions?

Ultimately a number of factors will be at play when determining when autonomous vehicle technology for commercial trucks will achieve market acceptance. Government regulations will need to set guidelines for the technology. The availability of proven autonomous vehicle systems at a cost that makes sense to trucking companies will be an important factor. And autonomous vehicles will need to gain social acceptance with fleets and owner-operators. We believe the demonstration of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a major step in starting the conversation about the advantages of autonomous vehicles for moving freight.

Like any new technology, there will be a period of time during which people will become familiar with the advantages and start to adopt the systems they find useful. With autonomous vehicles in the commercial trucking segment, this is going to be an evolutionary process, not a sudden revolution. Consumers are being exposed to the advantages of AV technology in the cars they drive and we expect that they will not only accept, but start to demand some of the safety features in commercial trucks. The fact is that some of the Level 1 and Level 2 AV technology is already deployed in thousands of Class 8 trucks on the road today. A recent example of technology market acceptance is the Detroit DT12 transmission introduction. We found trucking company and driver acceptance of the automated manual transmission happened at a much faster rate than we expected because the market recognized its high level of performance coupled with its safety and efficiency advantages.

How long has Freightliner been working on autonomous vehicles?

Daimler researchers began studying autonomous driving as a comprehensive function in the 1990s as part of the EUREKA PROMETHEUS project. Our work focused on highway situations. We were able to show that autonomous driving functions could, in principle, be created for highway-like situations, such as autonomous driving in multiple lanes, traveling in convoy, automatic following of other vehicles, lane changes and overtaking. Freightliner and Detroit engineers have been working on building block AV systems for more than a decade. Some of these components, such as the Detroit Assurance suite of safety systems, are already deployed in the Freightliner Cascadia® Evolution.

Will autonomous driving make professional truck drivers superfluous?

No, the opposite is true. In fact, the technology being developed as part of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, along with regulations, requires that a qualified truck driver with a valid commercial driver’s license be in the cab and at the controls. We not only want the driver in the truck, we want to be the driver’s partner in improving safety and fuel efficiency while they are on the road. This is the real success story of Freightliner today. From a pragmatic standpoint, we believe that regulatory, public and trucking company perceptions will for the foreseeable future require a driver at behind the wheel of all commercial trucks on public highways. From a practical standpoint, a skilled driver is still an essential part of the equation throughout the operation of the vehicle.

In addition, the combination of autonomous driving and connectivity will open up a wide range of other opportunities for people’s daily work. For example, drivers will be able to book a parking space at a rest stop or truck stop while on the road. In the future, owner-operators will be able to conveniently take care of any office work they may have while on the road instead of having to do it on weekends or delegating the work to other people. AV technology will help reduce stress for drivers while on the road and should enable them to enjoy true rest during down periods.

Is there really a clear ROI for the Freightliner Inspiration Truck’s technology? Aren’t the same fuel efficiency and safety advantages possible with a trained driver and current technology?

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck has a number of systems that improve the Real Cost of Ownership for our customers. We see advantages from autonomous vehicle systems when it comes to safety, fuel efficiency, highway congestion and environmental standards. We always consider a payback period of 18-24 months for our customers when new technology goes into production.