Last week Daimler Trucks North America officially unveiled its new autonomous class 8 highway truck, the Freightliner Inspiration at a glitzy media event on the Hoover Dam in Nevada. This is the first truck of its kind actually licensed to operate on highways in autonomous mode. That means the truck can make its own way down the road, while the driver just keeps the seat warm.
“It promises to unlock autonomous vehicle advancements that reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion, and safeguard the environment,” reads a statement in the company press release.
“The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is equipped with the Highway Pilot sensors and computer hardware is based upon a series production Freightliner Cascadia Evolution, fully certified to meet all U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” the press release continues. “The Highway Pilot links together a sophisticated set of camera technology and radar systems with lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking, steering and other monitoring systems. This combination creates a Level 3 autonomous vehicle operating system that can perform safely under a range of highway driving conditions. In total, two trucks with this equipment exist.”
After the driver gets the truck onto a highway and points it in the right direction, the truck computer takes over. It is responsible for maintaining the appropriate speed, following and braking distances, and slowing or stopping based on traffic and road conditions. If conditions fall outside acceptable paramaters, the computer returns control to the driver.
The press release didn’t immediately specify when the Inspiration models will be available to customers. But the first two trucks wore Nevada licence plates, which were bolted onto them by Nevada’s governor at an official ceremony, so it may not be long before production begins.
At the same time, Delphi’s automated car was in the news again. It navigated itself on a cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York with “99 percent of the drive in fully automated mode”. A company spokesman said the integrated radar and camera system used in the car has applications for further autonomous control of off-road vehicles as well.
So far, we’ve seen several developments in the ag sector which include autonomous vehicle control well beyond auto guidance. A few years ago AGCO’s Fendt debuted its Electronic Drawbar concept that allowed one driver to operate two tractors in the field. Valtra (also an AGCO company) introduced its ANTS concept vehicle made up of two modules that could separate and work under control of one driver.
Deere along with Case IH have introduced automated control systems that allow grain carts to pair with combines during unloading in the field. Kinze has taken that concept a step farther, making the tractor and grain cart completely driverless. And it announced some time ago it’s experimenting with a driverless tractor and planter combination.
All the senior executives I’ve spoken to over the years at the major ag equipment manufacturers have expressed reluctance to go too far with autonomy in ag equipment. Fear of U.S. civil litigation laws should something go wrong with a machine that causes injury or damage has been holding them back. But if Daimler is ready to put an 80,000 pound truck on the road and boast the driver is free to do other things while the truck navigates itself through traffic, clearly confidence on autonomous systems is growing by leaps and bounds.
With so many systems under development in the ag sector, it seems likely that the technology will soon hit a critical mass. When that happens I expect we’ll see an explosion of production-ready driverless and partly-driverless systems hit us like a tsunami. The question then becomes, how does machinery design begin to evolve after that?