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Daimler maps out autonomous trucks

Hands free: The Freightliner Inspiration self-driving truck could help reduce accidents and travel time, according to a senior Daimler Trucks executive.

Freightliner concept shows tech but it could be 10 years before it hits the road

Daimler logo6 Jul 2015

FORGET autonomous cars, it’s the big rigs of the road that will benefit the most from eradicating driver error, according to Daimler Trucks North America international sales and service director Claus P. Roth.

Daimler is the first company to produce an autonomous truck – the Freightliner Inspiration truck – licensed for public roads, although at this stage it only operates in the American state of Nevada.

Mr Roth, in Australia to open the first of a line of specialised Daimler Truck service and sales outlets, said autonomous trucks had the potential to minimise accidents, reduce travel time and even reduce fuel use.

He said that 70 per cent of cargo in the United States was carried by trucks and this was expected to triple by 2020. In addition, 90 per cent of truck accidents could be attributed to driver distraction or drowsiness – two factors that could be eliminated using autonomous vehicles.

But Mr Roth is cautious about its immediate future.

“We are evaluating it,” he said. “It is being developed and is progressing.

Through trials we will see how it can operate in the real world.

“We’re not producing the vehicle until the technology proves itself and it must work with the consent of legislators.”

Mr Roth also said the autonomous truck may be up to a decade away from reality – not because of the technology but because of legislative issues that extend from insurance to public liability.

But, ironically, the driver will still be onboard even though for the majority of the time, the truck will be driven by itself.

If the driver did not have to attend to driving all of the time, then they could be productive in other areas such as planning load and delivery logistics or attending to the truck’s maintenance.

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck uses much of the technology found in the autonomous systems in cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

One of the Inspiration Truck’s tricks that is also available on the S-Class, is to follow the road by monitoring the white lines at the side and centre of the road, using cameras and radars.

Once positioned on the road, it uses similar cameras and radar systems to note forward obstacles, predict and prepare for movement (other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and so on) from the sides and rear of the vehicle, and judge a correct distance to follow other traffic.

While it adds sophisticated hardware and software, in its truck application it has the potential to do away with some components.

It would not need side mirrors, would use headlights more to identify itself than show a path ahead at night, and could reduce the size of its cabin. These could lead to a truck that is smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic and so more fuel efficient.

Mr Roth said Daimler Trucks – the US-based subsidiary of the German company which has five main brands including Freightliner, Mercedes-Benz and Fuso – was also exploring hybrid technology for trucks.

“It wouldn’t be for heavy-duty trucks,” he said.

“It is better for city-based applications and for medium-size trucks such as Fuso and Mercedes-Benz brands.

“We are researching hybrids for trucks as a continuation of our work in other vehicles, but we haven’t made any as yet for production.”

Mr Roth said there had to be an economic reason for producing and operating a hybrid truck.

“We have to decide if the market wants the hybrid truck. If so, we will go further.

“At the moment there are advantages but we think it needs some years to grow.”

Mr Roth said Daimler was also investigating alternative fuels but, again, said it must make economic sense.

“If it costs extra for the truck owner to operate on alternative fuels then it may not suit his operation.”

Daimler Trucks has no plans to consolidate its five divisions of Western Star, Freightliner, Fuso, Mercedes-Benz and bus-maker Setra, according to Mr Roth.

“We actually have divisions within these divisions,” he said.

“For example we have Benz trucks in India as an offshoot of Mercedes-Benz trucks.”

But he saw component sharing as being a growing trend within the company.

“There will be more integrated components,” he said.

“From drivetrains to chassis, we can share components between the brands. It makes economical sense.”

Daimler Trucks has the biggest share of the US truck market. In Australia, its Fuso brand is the third most popular with 1553 sales year-to-date, a 6.0 per cent increase on the previous year.

Its Western Star brand has sold 311 trucks this calendar year, a drop of 17.3 per cent on 2014, while the only other representative of the parent company in Australia, Freightliner, recorded a 35.6 per cent drop to 250 sales this year.

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