Daimler-owned Freightliner has become the first heavy-duty truck manufacturer to obtain the right to test autonomous vehicles in the state of Nevada. Called Inspiration, the company’s first experimental self-driving truck was introduced recently at a special event held on the Hoover Dam.
Freightliner is quick to offer reassurance that the idea of an autonomous big rig is not as terrifying as it might initially seem. The company’s Highway Pilot self-driving technology uses a series of cameras, short- and long-range radars, and sensors to scope out the road ahead and detect potential obstacles. The recorded information is transferred to a central ECU that uses it to control the truck’s gas, brakes, and power steering at highway speeds. Isn’t that reassuring?
The Inspiration also inaugurates Freightliner’s platooning technology. When Highway Pilot is turned on, two or more properly equipped trucks can use vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology to automatically reduce the gap between them to about 25 feet and lock into platoon formation. By optimizing air flow, a three-truck platoon uses 5.3 percent less diesel than when the trucks are traveling by themselves, while a five-truck platoon saves up to six percent.
The Inspiration is no ordinary big rig. More aerodynamic than any model Freightliner has ever built, it uses cameras instead of mirrors to reduce both drag and blind spots, a technology that improves overall efficiency by about 1.5 percent. Considering that trucks often return less than 10 mpg, even a small increase in gas mileage is monumentally important.
The interior is fitted with a fully-configurable digital instrument cluster worthy of a high-end German car. The floor is lined with wood, while the cockpit is equipped with two leather-upholstered air-sprung captain’s chairs and a sofa-like bench that doubles as a bed.
Freightliner stresses that the Inspiration truck isn’t designed to replace highly-trained CDL drivers. At least one person has to remain in the cab at all times, and shipping companies can’t simply load up a truck and program it to reach its destination without a driver. Additionally, Highway Pilot only works at freeway speeds, it can’t maneuver the truck out of a tight spot — at least not yet.