LAS VEGAS. Nobody gets into the trucking business because it is easy. It is one of the most demanding and difficult jobs out there and nobody expects it to get any easier in the years ahead, either. Traffic congestion won’t suddenly dissipate; the amount of freight to be moved and work to be done by trucks won’t decline to a “perfect” level; and customers won’t (inexplicably) find themselves delighted with the status quo.
Instead, forecasts indicate that the trucking industry will be pressed harder than ever in the future by a working environment that makes the daily routine more routinely challenging. What to do? How to prepare?
New tools such as autonomous vehicles (AV’s) may be a part of the solution to the problems that lie ahead. AVs have often been generally referred to as “driverless vehicles,” and that is too bad really, because Level 3 autonomous trucks like the new Freightliner Inspiration are something quite different indeed. And drivers as well as fleets will be among the primary beneficiaries if the vision becomes a reality.
Throughout the day spent here Wednesday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) gave attendees an opportunity to learn more about the new human-to-machine interface that is being painstakingly developed by integrating existing technologies in new ways in the autonomous vehicle--- with the goal of greatly enhancing safety and driver comfort, boosting efficiency and reducing emissions, even when the job of trucking gets tougher still.
Martin Daum, DTNA president and CEO, talked about drivers and AVs at the morning’s opening session, by noting that, “Technology is not to replace humans, who are still the best computers that money can’t buy, but we can use technology to help people do some things that they never could do without it.”
Successfully harnessing technology to the further service of people and the environment as a whole is not an easy task, however. It requires a tremendous amount of scientific rigor on the part of humans. Talking about real cost of operation, for example, Daum noted that, I believe in scientific testing, not ‘marketing testing’, where you always come out on top. We want results everybody can duplicate. We want to find the negative things in order to make [the truck] better.
The easier things have already been invented,” he added. “The harder things are not easy and they are not free. There are not eureka moments, but the endless grind. Everything, every detail gets touched. If our AV decreases driver fatigue, for example, and allows us to, say, extend hours of service (based upon real science, real fatigue testing) then we can truly make the business case for our Inspiration truck.
On the level
Al Pearson, chief engineer for product validation for DTNA and Martin Zeilinger, director of advanced engineering for DTNA, gave members of the media a closer look at AVs in general and at the development of the Inspiration truck in particular.
For starters, Zeilinger reviewed the five levels of AVs, as described by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA:
- Level 0 (No automation): Vehicles in this category have no automation whatsoever to make the job easier for the driver, who is in sole command of all vehicle controls.
- Level 1 (Function-specific automation): Automation at this level involves one or more function-specific controls. “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.”
- Level 2 (Combined function automation): “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 enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.”
- Level 3 (Limited self-driving automation): “Vehicles at this level of automation 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…”
- Level 4 (Full self-driving automation): “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.”
The Inspiration AV is not a ‘driverless truck’,” Zeilinger told the audience. “We think this point is very important since drivers will remain in our trucks… DTNA is not interested in pursuing Level 4 automation.”
“The focus at DTNA is on exploring the opportunities of Level 3 AVs,” added Pearson. “From a practical standpoint, a skilled driver is still essential.”
AV Building blocks
“Lots of the building blocks for the AV are already on the road today, Zeilinger said. The Inspiration is based upon the Cascadia Evolution, and marries together technologies such as radar sensors, stereo cameras, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, active braking assistance and DTNA’s “Highway Pilot" communication system, for instance, to keep the driver informed at all times. It also adds lane-keeping capabilities, plus the ability to stop and go without driver assistance. “At the end of the day, the Inspiration is evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he observed. It is a logical next step forward.
Humans and their marvelous machines
With so much technological complexity onboard, it would be easy to imagine a truck too complicated for operator comfort, which is where the task of creating human to machine interfaces comes in.
Dr. Wilfried Achenbach, senior vice president engineering and technology for DTNA, explained the interface between drivers and AVs this way in his discussion of active and passive safety technology: The interface with humans has to be very good; it has to be simpler, not more complex than it is today, he noted. We have to make the system so simple, so easy to use. In the Inspiration autonomous truck, for instance, you just have to take the steering wheel and the system knows you are back in control. If any one component in the autonomous driving system fails, the driver is warned with an audible alert to take over again.
Dr. Achenbach refers to this process of successfully blending technologies to make the driver’s job easier and safer as “deep integration,” where the complexity takes place behind the scenes to invisibly support the driver in his/her daily tasks.
“No other OEM does more to integrate the truck, the driver and the business,” observed Zeilinger.
Behind the AV wheel
If you had been riding along in the Freightliner Inspiration Wednesday afternoon with driver Jim Martin, manager of vehicle performance at Freightliner, you’d have had the pleasure of hearing right from the driver’s perspective what this new human-to-machine interface is all about as the truck moved along in freeway and surface street traffic, sometimes driver hands-off, sometimes hands-on the controls. After logging about 2,000 miles in the truck, Martin offered plenty of praise for the driving experience and confidence in the AV system.
While the machine then is becoming smarter and more adaptable to human needs, humans have a bit of adapting to do, as well, if this new working “partnership” is to be a brilliant success. “Technology advancements drive societal benefits,” observed Sean Waters, director of compliance and regulatory affairs for DTNA. “Our hope is that the government will look closely at the advances on our trucks and make regulatory adjustments accordingly.”