Freightliner just unleashed the first real, road-legal autonomous big rig on the roads of Nevada. Here’s what that actually means and why it really matters.

What is this thing and who built it?

We’re talking about the Freightliner Inspiration Truck here.

Freightliner is a subsidiary of Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz and Smart. Daimler also runs the Thomas bus brand and Setra, Western Star, Mitsubishi Fuso, and BharatBenz commercial truck companies. Suffice it to say they have a lot invested in road freight.

Advertisement

They’ve been on-point with new technology in heavy trucks lately, having released the SuperTruck concept that “improves semi-truck fuel economy by at least 50 percent” just a couple months ago.

Why do I care?

An autonomous semi-truck affects you as both a road user and a consumer of... just about any product here in America. The American Trucking Associations say 70 percent of all domestic freight tonnage goes on trucks, to a tune of some 9.2 billion tons a year.

Advertisement

If you buy groceries, gadgets, or gasoline in America there’s a good chance it was carted to your point of purchase by a big rig. So the cost and safety of that big rig’s operation trickles down to your cost at the shop counter.

And it goes without saying that a reality of autonomous trucks means you’ll be sharing the road with 40,000 pounds of steel helmed by a robot. An intelligent, infallible, indefatigable robot. Or is it?!

But seriously, robot truckers could do a lot to improve the safety of our highways.

Can this truck really drive without a driver?

Yes and no.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has four “levels” of vehicle autonomy, 0 being a regular human-driven car and 4 being fully self-driving. The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is a Level 3 autonomous vehicle.

As NHTSA explains:

“Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control.”

“The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.”

Freightliner says the Inspiration Truck’s autonomous vehicle system is responsible for “maintaining legal speed, staying in the selected lane, keeping a safe braking distance from other vehicles, and slowing or stopping the vehicle based on traffic and road conditions.”

The truck monitors dynamic road conditions and situations, and transitions to driver control when necessary. A human still does highway merging, local roads, and docking duties.

Show me how this “autonomous vehicle system” really works

Freightliner’s “Highway Pilot” tech is a huge suite of cameras, sensors, and radar hooked up to the vehicle’s controls. It’s basically an evolution of tech you may have used yourself; cruise control, lane-keeping, parking sensors... just in an extremely advanced form and pre-wired to the throttle, brake, transmission, and steering wheel taking the person out of the equation.

Check out this video illustration for some more detail:

How is this street legal?

So far only Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, and Washington DC have rules on the books for autonomous vehicles. Since autonomous vehicles aren’t explicitly “illegal” anywhere else, most people argue you could take that to mean they are legal in the forty-six remaining states. But it seems companies testing autonomous cars and trucks are sticking to the four states listed above to avoid potential complication.

Advertisement

The Inspiration Truck is registered in Nevada (see their autonomous vehicle rules in detail right here), which requires car and truck manufacturers to have “a $5 million insurance policy, take out a $5 million bond, or make a $5 million deposit or bond with the DMV as proof of financial responsibility and the ability to cover possible liabilities for damage to persons and/or property.” according to the University Of Washington School Of Law’s Autonomous Vehicle Team, which has studied the matter intensively.

Are we actually going to see these on the road?

As of May 2015, exactly two real-and-functional autonomous Inspiration Trucks exist. But some of the “core autonomous vehicle systems” in these two demonstration trucks are already in use on Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution big rigs. The Inspiration Truck just connects the various crash-avoidance tools directly to the truck’s controls.

Advertisement

Daimler’s made the claim before that everyday use of self-driving semi-trucks is only a decade away, for now I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Can you explain that all over again with a little more public-relations rhetoric?

Advertisement

Freightliner has an entire subsite devoted to the Inspiration Truck where you can read the brochure and hear their executives talk about how innovative and syner-tastic it is right here.


Andrew P. Collins is Jalopnik’s off-road and adventure guy. Shoot him an email at andrew@jalopnik.com or hit him up on Twitter @andr3wcollins to talk trucks.