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Semi Autonomous: Automated controls won’t replace truck drivers anytime soon

Posted: March 13, 2019 by John G. Smith

It’s easy to become excited by all the talk about autonomous controls. If you buy into the hype, you might convince yourself that trucks will soon be able to accelerate, brake, and steer on their own.

Daimler Trucks North America has gone so far as to unveil a truck that can do all three things, after all. The latest updates to Freightliner’s new Cascadia include Level 2 automation, drawing on signals collected through bumper-mounted radar and a windshield-mounted camera.

Closing in too fast on the vehicle ahead? The truck will slow and brake. Straying across a lane marking without a signal applied? The steering wheel will nudge the vehicle in the other direction. If someone walks in front of the bumper? Full brakes are applied.

All the while, the system continues to track up to 40 objects within 800 feet of the bumper, refreshing data about 200 times per second. Its digital eyes don’t blink and are not distracted.

But the electronic vision is hardly foolproof. There are still plenty of times when a driver’s watchful eyes are superior. The pedestrian detection system can spot swinging hips, but would miss someone standing still. The camera might struggle to pick up some fading highway markings, or be confused by overlapping lines in a construction zone. Imagine how it would work on a snow-covered highway.

Even the fully autonomous Freightliner Inspiration Truck, first showcased in 2015, made its turns with the help of a highway ramp’s special markings, which had to be repainted once the demonstration was completed.

The latest generation of equipment would best be described as an evolution of cruise control. Rather than replacing a driver, it’s like having someone in the passenger seat who could shout out a warning before it’s too late. Maybe they could even grab the wheel to help in a pinch.

It’s why we’re still in the era of technology that can “mitigate” collisions rather than eliminate them.

If anything, the emerging systems introduce the need for a new layer of driver training. Each manufacturer’s equipment approaches warnings and settings in a different way. Those who take the wheel will need to know what the individual bells, buzzers, and lights actually indicate.

There’s no denying we’ve come a long way, though. Gone is the need to cancel and resume cruise control in stop-and-go traffic. Emergency braking can be applied even if a driver happens to be distracted. I’ve heard reports from several fleet managers who report double-digit reductions in rear-end collisions after adopting collision mitigation systems.

Such systems continue to evolve, too. Today’s warning systems are no longer triggered by every bridge abutment or limited to tracking moving vehicles. I have to imagine that tomorrow’s systems will be able to more accurately define their lanes or identify hazards of every sort.

There will continue to be movement on things like related legislation, public acceptance, and even infrastructure markings in the years to come. But such changes take time.

Don’t expect to see an empty driver’s seat anytime soon.

 

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