Daimler's semi-autonomous truck puts self-driving features on the road
Freightliner Cascadia is Daimler's most autonomous truck.
Freightliner Cascadia is Daimler's most autonomous truck.
Image: Daimler AG

Daimler trucks are going autonomous — eventually.

For now, Level 2 (L2) partial automation will have to suffice. The vehicle company behind Mercedes-Benz cars announced Monday at CES 2019 that its new Freightliner Cascadia big-rig will include higher levels of robotic driving. The semi-autonomous trucks will start production in July in North America. It's not fully self-driving, but it's pushing the trucking industry deeper into an autonomous mode. 

Truck CEO Martin Daum admitted he was skeptical of autonomous capabilities back in 2015, when Daimler unveiled its Freightliner Inspiration autonomous concept truck. Now he sees Level 4 autonomy (full autonomy in most situations, climates, and environments) coming to trucks within the decade.

For Daimler, L2 means trucks that can self-steer, accelerate, and decelerate on their own. It builds on auto braking and other advanced driver assistance systems already on Daimler's trucks. Adaptive cruise control can bring the truck to a full stop at 0 mph. 

Blind spot detection warns drivers about other cars, while auto-braking capabilities can stop on a dime when a pedestrian or other object crosses in front of the cab. Collision warnings flag drivers with info from bumper-mounted radar and front-facing cameras. If after an alert the driver doesn't do anything, the car takes over. A drifting truck without a turn signal on will trigger a rumble warning and pulls the car back into the lane. 

There are a variety of little things that can't be overlooked, like automatic wipers and headlights in inclement and wet weather and auto high-beam adjustments. 

At the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a test-only Cascadia drove down the public road and showed how these things work in real-life situations. It's still very much driver-dependent, but like Tesla's Autopilot, these features help drivers relax a bit while remaining engaged. 

As the driver took his hands off the wheel, the truck stayed in its lane, and with adaptive cruise control it continued along at 55 mph without a foot on the pedal. Eventually a visual warning came on to grab the wheel and then started beeping when it took too long. When the car in front started slowing down and eventually stopped, the truck slowed on its own down to 0 mph. 

A bicyclist, then a pedestrian, appeared in the driver's blind spot – sure enough, the truck beeped and warned the driver. 

The specs, improvements, and advanced driving systems on the truck are impressive, but these details are part of the bigger picture that trucking is an ideal platform for improving automated driving for all vehicles. With long stretches of monotonous driving and busy urban settings for delivery, trucks can absolutely benefit from automation. What companies like Daimler learn on the road eventually trickles down to the everyday cars non-truckers drive, too.

Daimler didn't mention any competition, but others are racing to automate trucking. The infamous Uber/Waymo engineer who founded self-driving trucking company Otto before he was fired at Uber just announced another new company building self-driving software for trucks. After a legal battle with Google's Waymo, Uber dropped its plans for self-driving trucks last year.

Tesla has its Semi, which CEO Elon Musk certainly wants to put his semi-autonomous Autopilot program on and eventually make it more self-driving capable. Nikola, a Tesla competitor with an electric truck, could also benefit from autonomous features.

Then there's Einride, the Swedish company, pushing for truly driverless electric trucks with a creative design. From the more traditional auto makers, Volvo is pushing the autonomous freight limits too, with its futuristic Vera design and other transport trucks.

But before a truly autonomous future is on the highways hauling our online deliveries, Daimler's approach with partial autonomy is a strong start.

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