Daimler’s Driverless 18-Wheelers Approved to Cruise Nevada’s Highways

13,224 7 Loading

This summer, while road tripping through Nevada, you may pull up to the sleek silver cab of an 18-wheeler, and get a shock—the driver isn’t looking at the road, and his hands aren’t on the wheel. Is he…reading?

Daimler driverless Freightliner Inspiration truck.

Daimler driverless Freightliner Inspiration truck.

Nevada, one of the first states to write legislation regulating the testing and operation of driverless vehicles, just okayed Daimler’s futuristic Freightliner Inspiration driverless trucks for the highway. But truck drivers need not fear for their jobs—these trucks won’t replace any humans just yet. They're here to help.

Think of it as autopilot for long-distance truckers.

The truck uses cameras, sensors, and radar to scan the area all around it and determine its position on the road and in relation to nearby cars and trucks. Some of these features—staying in lanes and maintaining a safe following distance—already exist in top-of-the-line Daimler cars.

This is the next step. But unlike Google’s driverless cars, the trucks don’t use LIDaR (a spinning laser-based sensor) and, at present, they are only able to drive highways—not city streets.

Now they’re approved, however, Daimler’s two autonomous trucks will go on the road (with a driver in the cab) and begin racking up miles. Like all driverless technology, it’ll take time for both the public and regulators to get comfortable with the idea—and a real-world driving record, clean of major incidents.

The early benefits, according to Daimler, have less to do with replacing drivers and more to do with fuel economy—algorithmic drivers are less erratic and can even form caravans to perform some nifty drafting to save gas (see video)—and making long-haul drivers' jobs easier and safer (for them and us).

Indeed, for now, humans will remain firmly in the driver’s seat.

The trucks will hand off the controls whenever they’re overmatched by conditions or there's a problem with the system. If the driver doesn’t respond fast enough, the truck will decelerate and stop until they do.

Drivers would push the red button to hand over controls to the truck's 'highway pilot' system.

Drivers would push the red button to hand over controls to the truck's 'highway pilot' system.

It's easy to see the potential of autonomous trucks.

Some 3 million trucks and drivers haul 9.2 billion tons of freight (almost 70% of the total) across the US every year. Even assuming no further advances in the technology, and unlike other kinds of driving, much of trucking could, in theory, be automated soon. A good number of miles driven are dry, highway miles.

We could even imagine a truck operating mostly without a human driver, then, as it approaches town, easing into a designated pull-off or parking lot where a human operator, already alerted of its ETA, waits to drive it the last few miles. Similarly, in the event of bad weather, which is somewhat predictable, the truck pulls off the road and either waits it out or calls in a human to guide it through the worst conditions and hand back the reins.

All this seems plausible even at a technological standstill. And further advances, like better sensors, machine learning, cloud AI, and vehicle-to-vehicle communications will increase the number of driverless miles possible. But Daimler thinks it’ll take a decade for everyday use of driverless trucks.

No doubt, this is in part because we want to work out every kink in the technology and test it rigorously. But it’s also getting comfortable with the idea of 40 tons of freight and steel being piloted by a computer program. In theory, it’s way safer—in practice, until well-proven, it’s a little terrifying.

The truck's plush interior includes a wrap around sofa/bed combo.

The truck's plush interior includes this wrap-around sofa bench and bed.

Google’s cars, for example, have driven a million miles accident free. But we aren’t anywhere close to removing the steering wheel, gas, and brakes on most commercially available cars. We’ll likely need a similarly lengthy and reliable track record for driverless trucks before we remove human drivers for extended periods.

But don’t expect testing to last forever.

As robots continue taking over dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs—truck driving is a likely target for the next round of automation. Indeed, transportation in general, is a likely target. Ships carrying oversea freight could also become far more automated in the coming years.

Nevada and Daimler’s experimentation, then, is the beginning of this new era of automation. And in the end? We won’t bat an eyelash at robot trucks—not least because no one's at the wheel of our car either.

Image Credit: Daimler/Freightliner

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • SweetDoug May 8, 2015 on 9:57 am




    What is particularly alarming, is the meme that…

    ———————————————————————————————————
    But truck drivers need not fear for their jobs—these trucks won’t replace any humans just yet. They’re here to help.
    ———————————————————————————————————

    Does anyone really believe this? Does anyone believe that the ultimate goal, is not to have a fully autonomous vehicle in 5 years, or 10 at the most?

    Yet that is the mantra that’s being driven in all of these articles.

    TPTB can’t just come out and tell you that, “Your job is gone in 10 years.”

    That’s the goal, isn’t it? Otherwise…

    Do you think, as a taxpayer, I’m going to stand for one moment, the footstomping unions who control the city buses, that will want a ‘driver’ sitting in a ‘driverless’ bus, just because, incase… Make their 80k a year, doing even less, while I pay for their pensions?

    Crickets…

    That’s coming too, out of the unions, how they’ll need a driver anyway.

    No. They. Won’t. And I ain’t paying for it either.

    We’re in big trouble folks, because in 10 years, a lot of jobs are gone with these and other technologies, just over the horizon.

    Teachers are gone with VR/AVR because it’s not like I can’t learn how to play a guitar with a video, and now VR?

    Manufacturing jobs will dwindle to nothing, machinists, engineers, et cetera as 3D printing just decimates the industry.

    Robots will take care of the rest. See the way the Chinese are starting to install them now, in the recent article.

    http://www.scmp.com/tech/enterprises/article/1786484/building-work-starts-first-all-robot-manufacturing-plant-chinas

    And they’re going to spend nearly a trillion yuan in the next 3-5 years to replace the jobs.

    Millions of jobs will be gone. And that’s fine, that’s progress, but what are we going to do with all the unemployed?

    •∆•
    V-V

    • Crocoduck SweetDoug May 10, 2015 on 12:12 pm

      I’m not sure if you purposely left out this chunk of the article or just missed it but…

      “Labour shortages have long troubled the Pearl River Delta region, though the situation has improved slightly in the past few years.

      According to Guangdong’s labour department, in March 2015 after the Lunar New Year holiday, the province needed between 600,000 and 800,000 workers. That was about the same as in 2014 but less than the 1 million shortage in 2012.

      In the same period in 2010, the shortage had been 2 million.”

      • SweetDoug Crocoduck May 29, 2015 on 11:01 am




        No, I didn’t purposely leave out the idea of the ‘worker shortage’.

        I just didn’t focus on this idea, but I will now.

        I’ve been exploring this concept, and I think that this meme of ‘worker shortage’ is a complete crock of $#!+, is nothing nothing more than an out right, bald faced, lie and distraction from the real intent to justify the replacement of people by robots.

        Don’t get me wrong: It’s gonna happen. But what bothers me, is the disingenuous, intellectually dishonest, razzle-dazzle.

        Worker shortage, in China?

        Really?…

        I don’t think so.

        Search “worker shortage robots” and see how this meme is being promoted.

        So if anyone thinks there’s gonna be a worker shortage with all the workers in China, or those that are unemployed in North America right now, just wait about 3-5 years when automation really takes hold, and then you’ll see plenty of workers available.

        •∆•
        V-V

    • Nicholas Johnson SweetDoug May 14, 2015 on 9:30 am

      At one point we were ALL farmers.. People freaked out that all the jobs would be replaced by machines and then what..? Another point we were a GIANT city of industry, sewing and welding and sawing and felling trees, but in came the machines, and then what..? All the while our population is getting higher and higher and still we manage to create new things that need people to run them.
      So now… what?
      Something else is what.

  • azazel142 May 8, 2015 on 7:07 pm

    You’re going to be paying thier welfare ,and or they will get retrained and come for your job, So as you sit there and worry about petty stuff like unions ,and actually think you’re going to pay less taxes because the driver will be gone shows you won’t last too long in the job market yourself. The robots are not progress for the people they are progress for the elite ,and will knock the workers back a 100 years in time. Why don’t we rally around the glaring fact that we as a civilization are not ready for this type of progress.

  • krreagan May 20, 2015 on 6:07 pm

    We will need to adjust our society! Capitalism in it’s purist form so far (USA) has had a great run but will eventually fail due to constant pressures from the super rich.

    You forget that the elites need the middle class to make their money. They are squeezing them dry now and have already started down the road to eventual revolution. We will have to change our base society away from capitalism to something else… Don’t have a clue yet what that might be.

    Maybe the AI’s can design a better system where everyone gets a very high standard of living without standing on the backs or those lower in the economic spectrum. Where the desire to rule over the populous is treated as it should be, a mental illness.

    As long as we have humans in a position of political leadership we will have a society where a few social classes get special treatment over the others… Put an AI in the leadership role with our best interests as it’s only goals and we may all live in a society with an ever increasing level of prosperity.

    And yes this is a fantasy… Thats what the European monarchs said about the societies envisioned by the founding fathers. The founding fathers wanted to protect the less fortunate from the oppression of the majority or wealthy or opressive religious… two hundred forty yeast of tweaking by the rich elite have perverted it into an oligarchy where they control the elections through massive amounts of money. When was the last time you actually wanted to vote for the person you voted for and not the lesser of several evils. Iran has their religious leaders vet their candidates, we have the rich elites vet ours.

  • Edward Joseph Silva May 30, 2015 on 3:10 pm

    This is great, and it would be interesting to see what this does to the health of truckers, who often have to over-caffinate so they can stay focused 8+ hours at a time. Looking forward to hearing more!