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Daimler makes autonomous truck tech leap, abandons platooning

Posted: January 7, 2019 by John G. Smith

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Daimler will produce North America’s first SAE Level 2 automated truck in the form of a new Cascadia that offers automated steering, acceleration and braking in certain situations. And the company is hardly stopping its autonomous journey there.

The news comes against the backdrop of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where Daimler Trucks North America also announced about US$600 million in investments and 200 new jobs in a push to put Level 4 autonomous vehicles on the road within a decade. Most of the jobs will be headquartered at the Daimler Trucks Automated Truck Research and Development Center in Portland, Ore.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 94% of crashes can be linked to human error, and Daimler believes these technologies will help to reduce that very risk.

The Vegas backdrop offered a fitting setting for the announcement. During a May 2015 event at the nearby Hoover Dam, Freightliner rolled out the first working example of an autonomous commercial truck in the form of its Inspiration concept vehicle.

“Trucks is all about technologies,” said Martin Daum, the head of Daimler’s truck and bus divisions, referring to a modern truck’s 400 sensors and 100 million lines of software code. “It’s mind-boggling.”

But Daimler is abandoning work on “platooning” vehicles as part of its autonomous vehicle plans. The concept promised fuel economy improvements through tighter following distances made possible with an electronic handshake between different tractor-trailers. After thousands of miles of testing, Daimler says too many of the potential fuel economy gains are lost when the platooning trucks have to split apart and re-establish their connections in real-world operating conditions.

Level 2 autonomous trucks

Through the partial automation of Level 2 autonomous controls, drivers of new Cascadias will remain at the controls but be heavily supported, Daum said, referring to the “significant” safety gains to be realized.

The new capabilities will be anchored in the Detroit Assurance 5.0 suite of camera- and radar-based safety systems, making it possible to accelerate, decelerate, and steer independently. The features were first unveiled during last year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles Show, in Daimler’s Actros trucks.

Here in North America, Detroit Assurance 5.0 Adaptive Cruise Control and Active Lane Assist’s features will keep trucks tracking in between the lane markings, maintain following distances, and even come to a complete stop.

“When the vehicle in front of you stops, the new Cascadia does too,” said Kary Schaefer, general manager – product marketing and strategy with Daimler Trucks North America. And if the detected vehicle ahead of the truck begins to move within two seconds, the truck will also begin to move without requiring a driver to touch the accelerator.

“The driver remains in control at all times, but is supported constantly by an advanced system,” said Wilfriend Achenback, senior vice-president of engineering. “The system is always alert and it never needs a coffee break.”

The National Transportation Safety Board suggests automatic braking assistance can reduce rear-end collisions 71%, serious driver injuries by 78%, and fatalities by 82%, Schaefer added. Forward collision mitigation systems have allowed some customers to reduce rear-end collisions by 60 to 80%. And the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says lane departure warnings can help to reduce related crashes by 26%, and serious driver injuries by 20%.

With the Adaptive Cruise Control enabled, Lane Keep Assist will apply micro-steering movements to keep the truck centered in its lane. Lane Departure Protection kicks in if the truck begins to drift completely out of a lane without a turn signal engaged, countersteering back into the lane and offering audible and visual warnings.

Warnings will also sound if drivers let go of the steering wheel entirely for too long.

Active Brake Assist 5.0, which fuses Detroit Assurance 5.0 camera and radar technology, will for the first time deploy full brakes if it detects a moving pedestrian or cyclist ahead of the truck. And forward- and rear-facing radar mounted on the side of the cab will help to monitor blind spots down the passenger side of the cab and a 53-foot trailer. When the hazards are detected, drivers are warned with a light that flashes in the A-pillar along with an audible alarm.

Fleets will also be able to monitor the actions of any of the safety-related activities through a system known as Detroit Connect Analytics. They’ll also be notified if drivers take their hands off the wheel for more than 60 seconds.

The next stage of autonomous vehicle development will focus on specific U.S. regions, Roger Nielsen says.

From Level 2 to Level 4

The decision to leap directly from Level 2 to Level 4 autonomous capabilities also makes sense from a development perspective, Daum said. “It makes no sense to put high amounts of technology in a truck just to have a redundancy to the human factor.”

Level 3 automated vehicles will prompt drivers to intervene in certain scenarios, while Level 4 vehicles can operate without driver input under specific conditions.

But work on Daimler’s Level 4 systems will also focus on specific U.S. regions at this point.

“The U.S. is a natural habitat for us to develop automated trucking,” explained Daimler Trucks North America CEO Roger Nielsen, referring to the available regulatory framework, infrastructure, and long distances to cover. “We will make automated trucks a true American success story.”

Further gains in autonomous vehicles are needed to enhance productivity, Daum added, noting how global freight volumes are expected to double between 2015 and 2050. “We can run those trucks in future around the clock we can run them far more at night when there is less traffic.”

“Highly automated trucks will cut the cost per mile considerably.”

Meanwhile, he challenged people who question why such truck-related developments take so long in an era where other technological advances are realized so quickly.

“Take your tablet and put it on the grille of the truck and drive through rain or snow conditions,” he said. For trucks, the tech has to perform for more than five years and 500,000 miles of service.

“The truck turns Inspiration into reality,” said Wilfriend Achebach, senior vice-president of engineering.

Series production of new Cascadias with Level 2 controls will begin in July.

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