Rise of the machines: Test performed on roads in Germany
October marked a major milestone for the shift towards self-driving vehicles in the automotive industry, when Daimler Trucks operated the world’s first series-production truck to operate on an automated-drive basis in Germany. The truck used was a standard Mercedes-Benz Actros equipped with Highway Pilot system, enabling it to drive autonomously on public roads.
Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, board member of Daimler AG responsible for trucks and buses, undertook the maiden journey on the Autobahn 8 motorway between Denkendorf and Stuttgart airport. He was accompanied by Winfried Kretschmann, Minister-President of the state of Baden-Württemberg.
“Today’s premiere is a further important step towards the market maturity of autonomously driving trucks – and towards the safe, sustainable road freight transport of the future,” said Bernhard.
Safety systems and sensors enable the truck to continually observe the area in front of it and take control in certain situations, giving the driver the opportunity to safely take his hands off the wheel. Upon approaching an obstacle like roadworks, the system asks the driver to take over the vehicle. Once the obstacle is behind the truck, the Highway Pilot can take control again.
The Actros used for the test drive is fitted with a 12.8L engine and safety features such as the Mercedes PowerShift 3, predictive powertrain control, proximity control, drowsiness detection and a Fleetboard vehicle computer, all linked with the sensors of the Highway Pilot.
While the idea of a truck driving itself safely does take some getting used to, the system is well suited for the motorway. It maintains adequate distance from the vehicle in front and brakes in good time if another vehicle cuts out onto the road in front of it.
It’s important to note, however, that the Highway Pilot does not replace the driver. It simply supports and relieves the strain by dealing with long, monotonous stretches of road, or stop-and-go driving in a traffic jam. In the automated mode, the driver has control over the truck at all times and can take over driving in tricky situations.
While it’s uncertain how long it will be before automated trucks take over, the vehicles could potentially be a life-saver, literally and metaphorically, for long-haul transport. By largely reducing the human element in driving, such trucks not only reduce fuel consumption, but also combat driver fatigue, ensuring greater fuel efficiency, lower TCO and, ultimately, safer roads.