18-wheeler robot juggernaut hits Nevada's highways. Cower, fleshies!

Freightliner's Inspiration Truck - more than meets the eye

American truck maker Freightliner has premiered its first robot big rig, and it has already received a road license plate for a computer-controlled 18-wheeler on public highways.

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck operates on a system called Highway Pilot, an automated cruise control setting which is intended to allow the driver to relax and, for instance, read The Register while avoiding Decepticons road hazards.

Highway Pilot utilises stereoscopic cameras located at the front end of the truck which will scan for traffic signs, lane markers, and, of course, other vehicles. This scan results in 3D imagery being fed into the Inspiration Truck's "electronic brain" (computer, surely?) which then adjusts the electric steering rack, the drive-by-wire throttle, and the automated manual transmission to keep the truck between the lines and at a safe distance behind any leading vehicles.

"Ninety-percent of commercial truck accidents are due to driver error and 1 in 8 of those are due to driver fatigue," stated Freightliner's Head of Trucks and Buses, Wolfgang Bernhard, at an unveiling event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bernhard added that AV technology can help curb long-haul fatigue by allowing a computer to handle the longer and duller highway stretches.

Freightliner is refreshingly frank about the automated elements of its Highway Pilot system, and admits they are little more than standard cruise control and lane departure prevention systems which have been somewhat tidied and organised for lorry use. It is understood that there is no intention to weaponise the AVs or develop the capacity to autonomously transform between vehicle types.

Based on existent technologies from its sister company Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner's Inspiration Truck does, however, do away with the requirement for AV-specific infrastructure. Abandoned are the cries for special beacons, or special AV driving lanes. The camera-based technology apparently needs only clear traffic signs and crisp white stripes to function effectively, which is more than one might say for many human drivers.

Autobots of the World, Unite!

Notably, however, the robot lorry is yet to be fully automated and is unlikely to threaten terrified workers' livelihoods - as has been suggested is definitely going to happen in other sectors.

Drivers are still required for ignition, for stopping and parking, for "handling complex low-speed maneuvers" and to monitor what is meant to be autonomous driving. Freightliner reports that the system will notify the snoozing driver with audio-visual cues in the event that inclement conditions provoke the system to question its own competence. However, when driving conditions are optimal the Inspiration Truck's driver can pass the wheel, proverbially, to the Highway Pilot and carry on kipping, or reading The Register.

The rise of autonomous driving systems has been both welcomed and scorned, however, with Tesla's Elon Musk previously advocating both for and against their uptake. Musk has also joked about making flying cars and submarine cars, although it is unknown if these are to be autonomous when they are made - which they definitely will be.

At its unveiling today, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck also became the first commercial truck to receive an autonomous vehicle license plate in Nevada, which was also the first state in the USA to approve and regulate the use of AVs. Robot cars have also rolled out in UK-based tests this year, following changes to the highway code. ®


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