Self-driving heavy lorries

This piece on Daimler-Benz’s self driving truck technology was published on May 18th last..

“My first customer was a lunatic. My second had a death wish”. It seems that Karl Benz did not have high confidence in the safety of his new product, the 3 wheeled patented ‘motorwagen’ powered by his internal combustion engine, also patented. He sold just 25 of them between 1888 and 1893, when he then launched a 4 wheel version. In 1895 Benz built the first truck powered by an internal combustion engine, followed later that year by the first bus.

Today, 120 years later, the automobile industry is focussed on low and zero emission engines, and on increasing automation and safety. In Ireland, we have a national target of 20% of all cars being electric by 2020. However according to this paper, only 256 electric cars were sold in Ireland last year. By comparison in Norway, nearly 14% of all of its cars were electric in 2014: electric vehicles there can use bus lanes, and have exemption from road tax, public parking fees and motorway toll payments.

The technology research necessary for self-driving cars is leading to spin off subsystems for automation, driver monitoring and guidance. Semi-automatic guided-parking systems are available from many major manufacturers. BMW recently demonstrated a fully automatic self-parking system in which the driver can step out of the car and the car then drives itself to find a free space in a car park, later returning back to the owner on command – a ‘Remote Valet Parking Assistance’.

Meanwhile the insurance industry is interested in driver monitoring. AIG, Axa, Aviva and several other insurance companies offer smart phone apps which record driving behaviour and, in some cases, offer discounts to customers who use them. For parents concerned about their offspring equipped with a driving license, Ford, Hyundai, Lexus and others offer apps to monitor the driving of their adult children – including locations visited and routes taken.

The advances in car automation are impressive. Way back in (just!) 2004, none of the fully autonomous entrants made it further than seven of the planned 150 miles of the US Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) deserted desert course. By 2007, the majority of entrants completed a more complex urban course in the DARPA competition. Industry analysts now predict that the first self-driving cars could be on sale by as early as 2017.

In the last week, Google admitted to eleven minor accidents (no injuries involved) in its six year self-driving car programme. It asserted that none of them were due to the self-driving car itself, but rather side swipes and rear shunts by human drivers in other cars.

Also in the last week, the state of Nevada announced it has granted a license to Daimler-Benz for testing of self-driving long-distance articulated lorries. Daimler’s 18-wheel ‘Inspiration’ has been certified for public roads across the state. A human driver still has to be in the cab, but the truck can drive itself for considerable periods of time on highways. The driver’s seat swivels up to 45 degrees, allowing the driver to relax and, for example, to read or watch a movie. Building on earlier generation active cruise control and active braking systems, the ‘Highway Pilot’ uses radar and lane monitoring to keep the truck autonomously cruising. The driver can of course resume manual control at any time. In particular, the truck audibly warns of slow traffic ahead in which case the driver can assume control for overtaking. The truck can automatically give priority to emergency vehicles, moving over from its lane as necessary.

The business case for self-driving trucks is arguably stronger than for self-driving cars. Freight and logistics companies, and legislators and indeed the public, naturally have concerns about fatigue for long distance hauliers. Semi-autonomous articulated lorries also promise greater fuel efficiency and consequently lower emissions. It may well be whilst DHL, Amazon and others have drawn media interest for their drone quadcopter programmes (about which I wrote about in my last column), that the global freight industry even more rapidly adopts drone trucks.

Increased automation in aircraft cockpits, including automatic pilot and landing systems, have raised concerns in the aviation industry about pilot inattention and the possible loss of piloting skills and experience. Could similar issues arise in autonomous articulated lorries ? In the case of the Daimler Benz Inspiration truck, a lack of response from the driver (perhaps because of sleep) results in the truck automatically pulling in and safely coming to a halt.

I think Karl Benz would have been impressed by what his successors are achieving. He once asserted that “the passion for invention will never die”, a catch phrase now adopted by Daimler Benz as a corporate motto. At a time when Silicon Valley is focussing on self driving cars and delivery by quadcopter drones, it is interesting to see a European company lead the development of self driving heavy freight trucks.

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About chrisjhorn

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