Self-driving Freightliner Inspiration rolls out on public roads in Nevada

The first autonomous heavy-duty truck gets its license to drive in Las Vegas.

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Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Truckmaker Freightliner's newest commercial big rig can steer and drive itself, while the driver relaxes and enjoys the ride. No, I'm not talking about Autobot Ultra Magnus. It's the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the first ever self-driving commercial truck to receive a road license plate for autonomous operation on public highways.

"Ninety percent of commercial truck accidents are due to driver error and one in eight of those are due to driver fatigue," states Freightliner head of Trucks and Buses Wolfgang Bernhard at an unveiling today at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Autonomous technology, the automaker went on to claim, can help curb long-haul fatigue by allowing a computer to handle the long, dull stretches of straight highway miles.

The system, called Highway Pilot, operates like the autopilot on a commercial airliner. Once set and underway the system can maintain a cruise without the driver's intervention. Highway Pilot uses stereoscopic cameras located at the front end of the truck that watch the road ahead for roadside signage, lane markers and other vehicles.

This 3D imagery is fed into the Inspiration Truck's electronic brain, which then affects the electric steering rack, the drive-by-wire throttle and the automated manual transmission to keep the truck between the lines and a safe distance behind a leading vehicle.

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If this is sounding a lot like an enhanced amalgamation of your Mercedes-Benz' smart adaptive cruise control and lane departure prevention systems, you'd be right. Freightliner has imported and tweaked these technologies from its sister company Mercedes-Benz, which is making parallel strides on the road to autonomy for passenger cars -- most recently with its F 015 autonomous car concept, which we took for a spin.

The Inspiration Truck doesn't transform into a giant humanoid 'bot, but this robo-truck also doesn't need any autonomous vehicle-specific infrastructure, special beacons or special lanes of its own. The camera-based technology needs only clear roadside signage and crisp white stripes -- which, coincidentally, are also helpful for human drivers as well.

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Just above the shiny new plate is the sensor package that help the Inspiration watch the road when the driver isn't.Photo by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Speaking of the human element, the Inspiration Truck still requires that a driver be in its driver's seat. A person needs to get the truck moving from a stop, handle complex low-speed maneuvers and to monitor autonomous drive.

Freightliner tells us that the system will notify the driver with visual and audible cues in the event that conditions won't allow confident autonomy (such as snow, rain or on roads with poorly defined lane markers) and a human is needed to take over. When driving conditions are optimal, however, and the road stretches out ahead, the Inspiration Truck's driver can set the Highway Pilot and tend to other parts of the business of logistics.

At its unveiling today, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck became the first commercial truck to receive an autonomous vehicle license plate in Nevada, not coincidentally also the first state in the US to approve and regulate the use of autonomous vehicles. So far, only a handful of states (Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan) and the District of Columbia have approved the use of autonomous cars on public roads. Many more are in legislation, but remain in a legal gray area where autonomy is concerned.