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Las Vegas, Nevada

When fatigued drivers lose control of their big trucks, the results can be catastrophic. Even a haphazard weave out of a freeway lane by a tractor-trailer rig can be terrifying if you are at close quarters in your car. Now, however, a potential solution to the problem of drowsy or inattentive truck drivers is in the pipeline.

While there has been lots of talk lately of self-driving cars, an application of autonomous driving technology in the world of heavy-duty class 8 trucks has the potential to bring greater safety, efficiency and other benefits to the trucking industry, other road users and society at large.

Unveiled in dramatic style at the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas, a futuristic concept big truck from Daimler AG’s Freightliner division showcased self-driving technology that would relieve the stress and workload on the driver.

Importantly, Freightliner, which dominates the U.S. heavy truck industry, emphasized that the technology does not remove the need for a qualified professional behind the wheel. That driver would be required to take over control of the truck in certain situations and monitor the vehicle at all times. But the driver would be able to take care of other duties — paperwork, delivery scheduling and so on — while the truck steers itself.

Research in simulators by Freightliner shows that drivers who are ‘relieved’ from hands and feet-on control of their trucks by a computer exhibit significantly less stress and fatigue than those who are constantly at the helm.

Though I have experienced impressive self-driving cars from automakers, including Mercedes and Nissan, the moment when the driver of the Freightliner Inspiration concept truck took his hands and feet off the controls at 55 mph on the highway was special. Keep in mind that this was a fully loaded, 65,000-pound rig barreling down a public road with a computer in charge. As our truck made its way along the freeway, negotiating curves and adapting speeds to vehicles in its path, the driver kept a watchful eye and took over when our exit approached and the system requested human intervention.

The Inspiration truck adopts the forward-facing radar and stereo camera systems developed by Freightliner’s sister division, Mercedes-Benz, to enable its version of autonomous driving. The camera lets the truck follow a pre-programmed route by viewing the markings on either side of road lanes. The radar system monitors traffic in front and allows the truck to modify its speed appropriately using adaptive cruise control software, also a familiar feature from luxury cars.

As well as the ability to pilot itself, the Inspiration truck boasts other advanced technologies, such as a hybrid electric drive system, waste heat recovery system and aerodynamic enhancements. Taken together, these features improve fuel efficiency 115 percent, so the truck can return as much as 12.2 mpg. That may not sound like much to a car driver, but in the world of heavy trucks it is a remarkable number. And less fuel consumed by trucks, which haul 80 percent of America’s freight, means less CO2 emissions, which is good for all of us.

Revealing the Inspiration concept, Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler AG board member for trucks, pointed out that “90 percent of crashes are the result of driver error. But the autonomous truck never gets tired.”

Bernhard added: “The only thing the system needs is good road markings — nice white stripes.”

Why launch the concept truck in Nevada? The state is the first to officially allow licensed testing of autonomous heavy trucks. Freightliner expects other states to follow suit and hopes eventually for federal approval of autonomous vehicles.

For car drivers, the prospect of safer, more efficient self-driving heavy trucks like the Inspiration is an appealing one. Freightliner acknowledges that it will be at least 10-15 years before all the concept’s features are on the road, but in the meantime its advanced systems will go into production individually, once they are fully tested and economically viable.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com.

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