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11/01/2016
DRIVERLESS IS BEAUTIFUL

Autonomous trucks

 

For the first time autonomous trucks are allowed to freely circulate on public roads in the U.S.. The driver, though, does not entirely disappear. Soon Europe could follow suit, but in Italy the legislation poses what seems an insurmountable obstacle.

Massimo Lanari

 

They did it! After years of studies, announcements, worries and skepticism, Mercedes-Benz has launched the first autonomous truck. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck recently travelled its first few miles on Highway 15 around Las Vegas and was “driven” by Brian Sandoval, Governor of Nevada, and Wolfgang Bernhard. Now please let us all calm down and keep a cool head: drivers will not lose their jobs, because these vehicles still require the human element. Just a monitoring  element, that is true, but these “beasts” will never travel independently, not even in a die-hard futurist’s wildest dreams. These vehicles are in fact equipped with a Highway Pilot intelligent system for autonomous driving, approved in the State of Nevada for circulation on public roads.

 

Cutting edge technology

Closely related to the Cascadia, the more “traditional” model of the American brand owned by the Stuttgart based giant, this vehicle can travel long distances on highways without the direct intervention of a driver, who is entrusted with a sort of oversight over the "autopilot". At best, he might consult his tablet to check the route, the driving time and any direction the company provides. The Inspiration Truck closely resembles the Future Truck, an autonomous Mercedes heavy-duty vehicle already seen in 2014, when it travelled on a section of the German A14, closed to the traffic for the occasion. The underlying technologies are the same: the Adaptive Cruise Control regulates the speed, with two radars, according to the distance from the vehicles ahead. At the same time, the Lane Departure Warning System recognizes, with a camera, lane markings and communicates to the Highway Pilot steering gears for autonomous lane driving. The Active Brake Assist, then, after identifying an obstacle, is able to automatically brake in case of need. To complete the picture, the Predictive Cruise Control coordinates the engine and transmission workload. Not to mention the direction management device based on an electric motor connected to the steering box. When technology proves unable to read road marking, or when “complex” maneuvers are needed, for example when entering or exiting a motorway, the truck still needs a driver to take over.

 

"With the Freightliner Inspiration Truck we unveiled the first commercial vehicle in the world capable of driving itself, authorized to operate on public roads. Once again, we play a pioneering role in terms of technology, working hard to make autonomous driving technology in long distance transport reach the necessary standards and approvals for mass production. I can only be proud of the extraordinary results achieved by the team at Daimler Trucks", said Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler Trucks and Buses Chairman of the Board. In the future, transport will have to be increasingly safe, efficient and interconnected: herein lies the principles that inspired Mercedes-Benz in creating a truck that can "talk" with the road infrastructure.

 

Rigorous testing                                                    

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is based on the Cascadia Evolution production model, with the addition of the Highway Pilot technology, front radars, a sophisticated camera and support systems already in use, such as the Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC+ ) already used on the Actros. To be approved for use on public roads in Nevada, though, technological equipment has been further enhanced, making sure that interaction between the different components reached unprecedented levels. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck has recently also taken part in the so-called Marathon Run in Germany, during which the vehicle traveled over 16 thousand km on a test circuit. The vehicle is equipped with a 375 hp 11-liter engine with common rail injection.

 

Higher threshold of attention and safety           

According to Mercedes-Benz, "Daimler’s Highway Pilot technology has shown that thanks to  autonomous driving, the driver’s threshold of attention increases, with consequent benefits in terms of efficiency. This has been demonstrated by studies and tests performed on a proving ground during the development phase of the system. Elettroencefalography (EEG) performed on test subjects revealed that driver fatigue is reduced by about 25% when traveling in self-driving mode, devoting, however, time to other activities relevant to the work. Tests have also shown a high level of technology acceptance and adaptation on the part of drivers. Reduced driver fatigue results in a general increase in road traffic safety".

 

What about Europe?

Now the question is: will this prove to be just the next American trend, destined to feature on those endless Midwest Highways? Or will this vehicle become a common sight in Europe as well? According to the German newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten, this technological innovation will soon hit European roads. What is more, it seems that the Daimler Group has already been granted permission to circulate the Future Truck on public roads, specifically on the streets of Baden-Württemberg (not surprisingly), in the Stuttgart region. Experiments that for now, in Italy, are simply impossible: Article 46 of the Traffic Law states that "vehicles are considered such only if driven on the roads by man." Only an Act of Parliament could therefore introduce an exception. While circulation on private grounds, although legally possible, would simply make no sense. Not as in Australia where, since the beginning of the year, 53 dumpers of the Rio Tinto mining company have been circulating carrying tons of minerals over 100s of km on private roads in the desert. But rest assured: just as long as there’s even one single truck on the road, there will always be a driver. Maybe more of a spectator, but still a driver.

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