Coming to a Road Near You SOON: Autonomous Vehicles  

With the rise of a suite of electronic safety features being developed and installed into an increasing number of cars, crossovers and light trucks over the last ten years, it seemed that the over-the-road big rig truck (commonly referred to as an 18 wheeler) would be the very last vehicle to be updated – or is it?

Recently at the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) showed off its Freightliner Inspiration Truck, which has been officially licensed to operate on public highways in the state of Nevada. The autonomous hauler allows the driver to hand over full control to the onboard computer under proper traffic and environmental conditions.  While the thought of an autonomous “street legal” big rig might be unsettling to some, it’s not totally unexpected.   Long hours behind the wheel at Interstate speeds has often led to driver fatigue, which is an attributable factor to many of the accidents involving the big rigs.

The basic idea behind the Inspiration is for the autonomous system to control the truck when on highways, while the driver deals with exits, local roads, and freight yards. According to DTNA, the Inspiration can take over many of the driving functions, such as staying in a designated lane, keeping station at a safe distance from another vehicle, maintaining a legal speed, braking safely to a halt when needed, and being able to judge when to hand back control to the driver.

Although it’s based on a number of current systems and technologies, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a rolling concept – with just two currently existence. But this news story is just the tip of the iceberg.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the Federal Government identifies the Freightliner Inspiration Truck as equipped with “Level 3” vehicle automation based on its guidelines as issued back in 2013.   Obviously I was compelled to investigate.

You may already know that as of 2013, the States of Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan have enacted legislation that expressly permits operation of self-driving (autonomous) vehicles under certain conditions.  What you may NOT know, is that the NHTSA has issued guidance to the states permitting testing of emerging vehicle technology.   The NHTSA defines a self-driving vehicle as “Those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.

The NHTSA defines vehicle automation as having five (5) levels:

No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle and motive power – at all times.

Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions.  Examples include electronic stability control, or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists, with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.

Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions.  An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.

Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enables the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control.  The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time.  The Google car and the Freightliner Inspiration Truck are examples of limited self-driving automation.

Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.  Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip.  This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

Ken Chester, Jr. is President & CEO of Motor News Media Corporation – an automotive news service founded in 1989 as The AutoBuyer Plus Corporation. Featured on numerous television and radio programs, viewers, listeners and readers alike relate to Ken's friendly manner and wealth of information about the many vehicles currently for sale in today's complex automotive marketplace.

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