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Autonomous truck hits the road

The Freightliner Inspiration truck can operate on highways at what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as Level 3 of autonomous capabilities. That means the driver can let the truck control all safety critical functions under certain traffic and environmental conditions.

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This is the first commercial automomous truck that can legally drive on US highways, but there's one big catch.

While this license plate signifies an automous vehicle, a driver still needs to be at the wheel, ready to takeover in certain conditions.

The Freightliner Inspiration truck can operate on highways at what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as Level 3 of autonomous capabilities. That means the driver can let the truck control all safety critical functions under certain traffic and environmental conditions. On its own the truck can maintain a legal speed, stay in the selected lane, keep a safe breaking distance from other vehicles and slow or stop based on traffic and road conditions.

It does this using a combination of cameras and radar. There are stereoscopic cameras to sense depth on the road ahead while short and long range radar scan the upcoming highway. Some of the autonomy works much like adaptive cruise control available in some passenger cars today.

Wolfgang Bernhard
Board of management, Daimler AG
The next challenge we have to overcome is to test this vehicle in real life; take it out on public roads in Europe and the US to see about weather conditions, conditions in every temperature how this vehicle behaves. So we believe after a couple million miles we'll be much smarter than we are today.

If the truck encounters a slower vehicle it won't pass it. The driver is also responsible for entering and exiting the highway and the truck won't drive itself in snowy conditions or where the lane lines are covered.

If the truck decides that it can't safely drive it will alert the driver and if the driver doesn't take over the truck will slowly come to a stop.

While the Inspiration is still a test vehicle, there's a hope that it will make trucking safer. In 2013 about 3600 people died in large truck crashes and those kinds of accidents account for 1 in 10 highway deaths.

Autonomous driving has been getting more attention in the past few years as cars and trucks integrate more sensing technology. In 2011 Volvo demonstrated vehicle platooning, where a lead car would have a driver and all of the other cars would follow autonomously. There have been countless demonstrations of self driving cars from other companies including Google, Nissan and Audi.

Nick Barber, IDG News Service.