4 things you should know about Freightliner's self-driving truck

The self-driving truck has debuted, becoming the first of its kind to receive an autonomous license for use on public roads.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

This week, at a dramatic event atop the Hoover Dam, Freightliner and Daimler pulled the wraps off of their Inspiration truck, the first self-driving commercial truck in the world to receive a full license to operate on public roads. The autonomous truck is here, at least in the State of Nevada it is.

The Inspiration truck features a system called Highway Pilot, which uses forward-looking stereoscopic cameras and radar sensors to give it an autonomous autopilot mode when cruising on the highway. The truck can steer to stay between lane markers and adjust its speed and braking to maintain a safe following distance behind other cars on the road all while the driver is free to do other things.

Now that we've all got all of the Transformers and Maximum Overdrive jokes out of our collective systems, I've picked out four things that you should know about the first coming of the autonomous truck.

It will help speed along autonomous car development.

Every mile than an autonomous vehicle spends robo-riding is another data point that helps automakers improve the next generation of self-driving cars. And no vehicle racks up more miles per year than a commercial truck. Much like how a Formula racer pushes performance technology to the limit to make your sports coupe just that much sharper, Freightliner's autonomous truck can be a goldmine of autonomous driving fine-tuning that gets the self-driving Mercedes-Benz of the future here sooner, safer, and more reliable.

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The human driver is still the most important element.

The Freightliner Inspiration is a Level 3 autonomous vehicle. That means that the truck can cruise in its Highway Pilot mode while the driver does other things, but it still needs a human being in the seat. There's yet still a lot of important driving for the driver to do. This includes negotiating surface roads, exits and interchanges, and everything else that's not highway cruising. The human in the seat is also responsible for setting and supervising the Highway Pilot mode, stepping in when conditions (like snow) prevent autonomous driving, and for negotiating the truck into loading bays.

Additionally, the driver retains full control over the vehicle at all times. Simply grabbing and turning the wheel or tapping the brake pedal immediately and instantly overrides the computer control.

This isn't some robo-truck that will replace truckers and take jobs away from people. (At least, not yet.) Rather, autonomous trucks like the Inspiration are a tool to make truckers' jobs easier and safer. Freightliner compares Highway Pilot to the autopilot system used on commercial airplanes every day, which handles basic cruising, but hasn't replaced the need for a pilot.

It can reduce accidents due to distraction by allowing (safe) distraction.

Truck drivers spend a lot of time trucking, which means they need to handle a lot of the day-to-day business that you'd handle at a desk from the side of the road. From scheduling pickups and drop-offs to making reservations for overnight stops and lodging to keeping in touch with family and loved ones, there's a lot to do, and the temptation to save a little time by doing these things while driving is even stronger when you've got hours of mindless highway ahead.

The Highway Pilot mode can, ironically, reduce issues related to driver distraction by allowing drivers to be distracted in a safe manner. When the system is active, a tablet in the Inspiration truck's dashboard can be removed and used to handle logistics, communication, and many of the other things that truckers need to get done. Meanwhile, the system's cameras and radar are keeping an unblinking eye on the road, reacting to other vehicles and steering to stay on the road, which I think is preferable to the driver splitting his or her attention dangerously between two tasks.

The potential for increased fuel economy affects us all.

One advantage to autonomy that sometimes gets overlooked is the concept of platooning (sometimes called road trains). Autonomous vehicles don't get impatient with traffic and are perfectly content to maintain a safe following distance behind a vehicle ahead. Less needless passing keeps the left lane free for you and I, fellow passenger car driver, to motor on by, but that's not the biggest advantage here.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

By platooning rather than wastefully passing, autonomous trucks like the Highway Pilot-enabled Inspiration can use vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology to virtually lock-onto the truck ahead, reducing the gap between them to about 25 feet. Fans of racing will already know what's coming next. This tight formation takes advantage of aerodynamic drafting and allows a three- to five-truck platoon to operate 5 or 6 percent more efficiently than each truck would traveling solo. Meanwhile, the trucks are able to take advantage of GPS and terrain data to make the most efficient use of their engines and transmissions to potentially save a bit more diesel.

The efficiency gains mean that transport costs (and eventually consumer costs for the products on the truck) is reduced. The trucks use less fuel and spew fewer emissions, which is better for the environment, economy, and so on. Autonomous trucks can be more efficient trucks and more efficient trucks benefit us all.

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