Self-Driving Semi-Trucks

Background Reading


The latest in autonomous autos is a self-driving semi. Photo by SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

The latest in autonomous autos is a self-driving semi.
Photo by SERGEI VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

“AU 010.”

License plates are rarely an object of attention, but this one’s special—the funky number is the giveaway. That’s why Daimler bigwig Wolfgang Bernhard and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval are sharing a stage, mugging for the phalanx of cameras, together holding the metal rectangle that will, in just a minute, be slapped onto the world’s first officially recognized self-driving truck.

The truck in question is the Freightliner Inspiration, a teched-up version of the Daimler 18-wheeler sold around the world. And according to Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, it will make long-haul road transportation safer, cheaper, and better for the planet. “There’s a clear need for this generation of trucks, and we’re the pioneers who are willing to tackle it,” says Bernhard.

The Freightliner Inspiration offers a rather limited version of autonomy: It will take control only on the highway, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles and staying in its lane. It won’t pass slower vehicles on its own. If the truck encounters a situation it can’t confidently handle, like heavy snow that covers lane lines, it will alert the human that it’s time for him to take over, via beeps and icons in the dashboard. If the driver doesn’t respond within about five seconds, the truck will slow down gradually, then stop.

In hardware terms, the truck isn’t much different from the latest trucks and passenger cars Daimler is putting on the road. A stereoscopic camera reads lane lines. Short- and long-range radar scan the road up to 800 feet ahead for obstacles. No sensors face backward, because they’re not needed. There’s no vehicle-to-vehicle communication, no LIDaR. The software algorithms are adjusted versions of those developed for use in Mercedes-Benz’s autonomous vehicles.

The Freightliner is still very much a test vehicle. Daimler’s confident it’s safe for public roads, and the Nevada DMV agrees. But the automaker needs a few million more test miles on the books in a wide variety of locales and conditions (snow, rain, extreme temperatures) before it’s ready to offer even this very limited autonomous capability to any customers. That’ll take a decade.


Bicycle lanes are a’ joke‘. They are a bit like wearing a ‘rabbit’s foot‘ or a St. Christopher medal when entering battle. If you really want to change the landscape you have to use technology. When technology is employed you are not trying to ‘blow smoke up the dresses of frightened cyclists‘ to coax them out onto the streets. Instead you a fixing the problem at its source, the human who is driving the vehicle.

Collision-avoidance technology will save more lives of pedestrians and even cyclists than any kind of bike lane ever will. But sadly the same problem that plagues automobiles and truck (name humans) is not going to be ‘fixed‘ on bicycles. Pedestrians in greater numbers will be killed by cyclists who are either reckless or inattentive and there is nothing short of segregating their paths so that cyclists cannot keep killing them.

Cars on the other hand will become the darlings of the safety-conscious. In addition to their being safer, they will have worked out problems with emissions to the point that only cows will be largely responsible for greenhouse gases.