World’s First Driverless Semi-Truck Has License to Travel

You’ve heard about driverless cars but what about driverless semi-trucks? Studies show that 90% of truck crashes involve human error, and a frequent cause of human error stems from driver fatigue. To improve truck safety and reduce crashes, Daimler Trucks North America (“Daimler”) decided to eliminate humans from the equation…mostly… and just introduced its new Freightliner Infinite Inspiration Truck, the world’s first autonomous commercial semi-truck. Daimler developed the Inspiration Truck based on its projection that over-the-road shipping of goods will triple by 2050. The Inspiration has already logged 10,000 road miles tested for safety and efficiency and passed all of the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Wolfgang Bernhard, a member of Daimler’s Board of Management for Trucks and Buses, understands the public’s skepticism over the safety and efficiency of using autonomous trucks, but he foresees many advantages arguing they are actually safer than trucks driven by human drivers because “[a]n autonomous system never gets tired, never gets distracted.”

The Inspiration Truck is designed to operate on highways, which do not have intersections, traffic lights or pedestrians to consider. The autonomous system operates with a system of cameras, radar and computers, and contains monitoring systems for speed, braking, collision avoidance and steering that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA defines as “Level 3” technology meaning it must have a driver to operate in some situations and to take over in the event of an emergency. Drivers would still be needed but act more as an “on-board logistics manager” similar to a pilot in an airplane, and would also be needed to enter and exit highways, dock to make deliveries and drive on local roads, and to operate the trucks in certain weather conditions including heavy rain, snow and crosswinds in excess of 30 mph. While the autonomous system is engaged, drivers could be working on scheduling, routing and delivery tasks making communication more streamlined and efficient, and provide opportunity for drivers who would not just be mindlessly logging miles.

Daimler promises its new autonomous semi will “reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion, and safeguard the environment,” according to a recent Freightliner press release. Bernhard claims reducing human error will lead to fewer crashes, which should also lead to a reduction in insurance rates. He further contends autonomous semis are more affordable to operate because tests show autonomous semis are up to 5% more fuel efficient than vehicles driven by human drivers. He further pointed to a driver shortage and argues autonomous trucks may be more attractive to potential drivers who would be doing more than just driving endless miles.

The Inspiration will start operating in Nevada, the first state to issue regulations and licenses permitting autonomous vehicles. In a splashy ceremony at Hoover Dam, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval issued the first-ever specialized license plate for the Inspiration, a bright red color with an “AV” on the license plate.

Only four states and Washington D.C. have laws addressing autonomous vehicles. Many automakers are developing driverless vehicles including Nissan, Tesla, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz, as well as Google, and California and Michigan are testing autonomous vehicles on their roadways but have not yet issued any licenses. Of course, national laws allowing over-the-road autonomous trucking will be needed before this becomes a more widespread practice.

How do you feel about driverless trucks and cars?