From the computer mouse to the Nike swoosh, many great inventions bloomed in Portland. Most recently, self-driving trucks have been developed in Rose City by a team of engineers working for Daimler Trucks North America, headquartered east of the Willamette. The group is a big piece of the automation puzzle and seeks to adapt automation to revolutionize the trucking industry.

Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, developed the first-ever self-driving semi truck in six months based on technology it has developed over the past two decades. The Freightliner semi truck, named Inspiration, was granted the first autonomous vehicle license plate for legal operation in Nevada in 2015. In order to gain that special license plate, Daimler had to prove that the truck could safely drive 10,000 on its own. It is considered a Level 3 autonomous vehicle on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s scale of automated driving systems because it still requires a human operator.

Using front-facing stereoscopic cameras and radar sensors to monitor road conditions in autopilot mode, the Inspiration navigates highways with ease. A human operator is still a vital component of the process, helping the vehicle get on and off the highway, navigate during adverse weather conditions, and even change lanes. Daimler stresses that humans will be necessary to oversee the operation of such vehicles for the foreseeable future.

Daimler has also been testing platooning semi-autonomous trucks on local highways. Platooning entails a string of trucks following one another for maximum wind resistance and fuel efficiency. Between two and five trucks may follow each other closely and use technology to communicate when any truck in the series is about to hit an obstacle. Through the use of technology that allows them to communicate, the trucks can follow each other much more closely than if humans were operating them.

These trucks were tested most recently on Interstate 84, which has become a standard route for testing fuel economy, according to Daimler officials.

Potential Benefits of Driverless Trucks

Daimler’s engineers are continuously working on technology that seeks to boost the trucking industry, which would in turn benefit consumers. Through rigid testing, tweaking, and retesting of autonomous trucks, the company’s progress in automation pushes us ever-closer to a world in which driverless vehicles dominate the roads.

Fulfill Demand for Drivers

Over the past several years, the trucking industry has faced several setbacks, one of the largest being a nationwide shortage in drivers. As seasoned drivers retire, few are enticed to fill their shoes; yet our demand for goods is only going up. Currently, trucks carry nearly 70% of the country’s freight. Daimler does not aim to take trucking jobs away from drivers; rather, the company’s director of advanced engineering for its North American division believes that packing trucks with advanced technology could attract younger drivers to the profession. As their trucks will still require human interference, the truck drivers of tomorrow can perform other duties and catch up on much-needed rest during their time away from the wheel.

Reduce Crashes and Improve Safety

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, large trucks accounted for over 4,000 fatalities in 2015. Human error is to blame for at least 90% of these deaths. Automation allows truck drivers to safely distract themselves during hours of travel while retaining full attention to the road via cameras and radar. While the truck is in Highway Pilot mode, a driver can knock out business tasks, communicate with family, or catch up on sleep.

Improve Fuel Economy

Through platooning, the fuel efficiency of each truck in the chain can improve between five and six percent. By using GPS and terrain data, the trucks can make the most efficient use of their engines and transmissions to save more fuel. If enough gas is saved, the savings could even be passed onto consumers.

There is no doubt that autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, but there are conflicting accounts of when exactly they will take over. Some autonomous car manufacturers such as Tesla and Toyota place the earliest estimates in the later 2020s. In the meantime, laws are being developed to address the new technology, and commercial drivers are preparing for uncertain futures.

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