The new Freightliner Innovation concept truck offers autonomous operation offering enhanced safety and efficiency on the road While not commercial the truck does have a license to operate on public roads in Nevada

The new Freightliner Innovation concept truck offers autonomous operation, offering enhanced safety and efficiency on the road. While not commercial, the truck does have a license to operate on public roads in Nevada.

Thinking autonomous in a new way

We're getting closer to a future where cars, and perhaps trucks, drive themselves and recently Freightliner showed what that would look like in a big-rig commercial truck. The company calls it the Inspiration Truck and it uses self-driving technology to "help reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion and safeguard the environment."

The first thing that might come to mind is an Interstate highway full of driver-less cabs hauling freight from point A to point B. That's not exactly the vision today, instead imagine a truck where the driver can flip a switch and put it on a true auto-pilot on the Interstate. The truck knows what's going on around it with radar and visual imaging.

With those systems, the truck stays in its lane, maintains a safe distance from the vehicles ahead and is aware of what might be in what used to be the human driver's blind spot. It's an improved operational mode.

Last week Jodie Wehrspann blogged about the potential of such vehicles, and noted that in agriculture we're ahead in some ways. The long drive in a combine cab is easier these days with auto-steering engaged. The key is that your combine or tractor is operating in a field with few, if any, other vehicles around so if you drift there isn't a problem.

Licensed and legal for over-the-road travel in Nevada, the new Freightliner Inspiration concept truck has systems that allow the driver to let the truck do most of the driving. (Freightliner Photo)

On the Freightliner concept truck - the technology is still a few years away - they use a system called Highway Pilot that ties together camera and radar technology linked to speed control and braking that allows autonomous operation on public highways. And the company went one step further, and actually got a license to operate the truck on public roads.

That license came from the state of Nevada and was granted by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to Daimler Trucks North America - owners of the Freightliner brand. Nevada is one of four states that has laws regulating autonomous vehicle operation.

How the truck works

According to the press kit for the concept truck, a radar unit in the front bumper scans ahead at long and short range. The long-range radar has a range of more than 800 feet and scans an 18-degree segment looking far and narrow to see vehicles ahead. The short-range radar looks ahead about 230 feet and scans a 130-degree segment to see vehicles that might cut in front of the truck.

That front radar becomes the basis for active cruise control and active brake assist. There's even a stereo camera behind the truck's windscreen that scans the area, recognizes lane markings and communicates to what's called the "Highway Pilot" steering gear - an actuator in the steering system - for autonomous lane guidance.

Using two kinds of radar, and a special camera, the truck can 'see' the cars and obstacles ahead as well as 'read' road signs. Combining those vision systems with steering and braking controls allows the truck to operate safely. (Diagram: Freightliner)

The truck uses Adaptive Cruise Control Plus - which starts with hardware and software from a production vehicle and it is modified for this new application. ACC+ combines active cruise control and distance control in combination with the ability of the vehicle to stop and go without driver intervention. Essentially, the company says the system can control distance and speed in a range of 0 mph up to maximum vehicle speed.

Clear on autonomy

Freightliner wants to be clear that this is not a driverless truck. In its press materials the company notes "since highly trained CDL drivers will remain in our trucks, we are inspired to also create the best possible experience for them. 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."

That means including a state-of-the-art dashboard interface, with a large screen that also ties in with the driver's cell phone and other communication gear. It's a high-tech dashboard that keeps the driver informed and also allows the driver to deliver commands to the truck. They're even using exterior cameras to help eliminate blind-spots (and deliver that visual information on the new display).

At the flip of a switch the Highway Pilot can be engaged, giving the driver a more controlled driving experience and enhanced truck performance, according to Freightliner. (Freightliner Photo)

This is just a glimpse at new technology that's coming to market. This truck is a concept design that does deploy ideas that have commercial potential. It will be a few years before the 18-wheeler is driving down I-80 in auto-pilot while the driver catches up on his/her reading. Yet the potential for more efficient operation, improved safety and increased fuel economy (right now the concept truck is showing a 1.5% boost in fuel economy and over 1 million miles that's a big deal).

If you want to check out more details on this hot-concept big rig, visit the Freightliner Inspiration website where you can also learn about other technology - already at work - that helps make this new autonomous truck possible.

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