Mercedes has revealed its latest concept vehicle. It’s not outstandingly futuristic in appearance, unlike some of the concept cars we see. In fact, it’s a truck, albeit a slightly unusual looking one. But despite its modest exterior, it’s likely to revolutionize transportation in the next decade. The new Mercedes truck drives itself.
What we’ve seen so far has only been a prototype. But the announcement from Daimler Trucks, a division of Mercedes, projects that these trucks will be delivering freight on the highways within ten years. And the implications of this are phenomenal.
Mercedes has already demonstrated the “autonomous driving” ability of the Future Truck 2025, as it’s being called. They’ve tested it in real life situations on the A14 Motorway in Magdeburg, Germany, at speeds up to 80 km/h (that’s roughly 50 mph for those of us who still don’t think in metric units) and it has performed quite capably.
Design Of The Mercedes Future Truck 2025
At first glance, the exterior of the Mercedes prototype is not all that outlandish in appearance, at least not in the world of concept cars. It has soft, rounded curves, and a generally aerodynamically efficient design, all in line with what Mercedes calls “Sensual Purity”.
But upon closer reflection, we notice the absence of headlights, which have been replaced with a panel of LEDs. These lights are white when the truck is being controlled manually. But when it switches into driverless mode, the LEDS transform from steady white to pulsating blue, communicating its state to other drivers, and (presumably eventually to other autonomous vehicles).
The interior of the truck takes us a step further into the future. The cab is simple and uncluttered (like a paperless office, according to the Mercedes press release). It is a Mercedes, so its design reflects the level of elegance and comfort we would expect from the German luxury car manufacturer. Natural leather and wood frame and support the high-tech instrument panels.
How Does It Run?
To be clear, while Mercedes calls this an autonomous truck, it is not intended to be run without human intervention. While they are planning to fill the highway system with vehicles driving themselves, the intention is that these will be driven by humans when on city streets.
But once it’s on the open highway, and the truck’s intelligence takes the wheel, so to speak, the driver can switch into a different mode as well. The seat can be reclined and turned 45 degrees to allow the driver to settle into a more relaxed working position. The driver’s attention can be turned from the steering wheel and pedals to a tablet computer which becomes the control center of the vehicle. The tablet is housed in the console, but can also be removed for handheld use. It allows the driver to perform a wide range of functions, including processing documents, planning destinations and navigation, and reviewing trip data.
The truly amazing part of the Mercedes truck is what goes on “under the hood”, in its brain and central nervous system. They call this the “Highway Pilot” system, and is patterned after aircraft autopilot systems. It uses both radar sensors and cameras.
Two radar sensors provide the basis for proximity control and emergency braking. One sensor scans short range (70 m) at a wide angle (130 degrees), while the other covers a much longer range (250 m) at a much more focused angle (18 degrees).
A stereo camera takes in all of the visual data within 100 m of the front of the truck and feeds it into the truck’s artificial intelligence. Mercedes employs cutting edge image recognition technology and precision measurement tools on any object which it recognizes as not being a part of the background. It recognizes lane markings. It reads traffic signs. It knows if you’re on a single- or multi-lane road. It can tell the difference between moving and stationary objects, and it knows what a pedestrian is.
Networked Freight Hauling
While the Mercedes “Highway Pilot” can function truly autonomously, it is also completely networkable. The vehicle communicates with the outside world using WLAN technology, constantly transmitting information into its environment. This information includes its location, speed, and direction of travel, as well as the size and model of the vehicle itself.
The truck will be able to communicate with other vehicles (V2V networking), each one sharing information about its movements. This allows each vehicle to anticipate the other’s position and respond more swiftly. An increasing number of vehicles in the network produces a larger and more extensive chain which provides more information from greater distances even sooner. As the numbers grow, each one gets a little smarter.
There is also Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) networking, in which data is sent to traffic control centers, which can tweak traffic patterns in response, as well as broadcast relevant data to other vehicles.
But Are Driverless Vehicles Safe?
Despite my instinctive fear of relinquishing control of my car to a machine, it does appear that self-driving vehicles will be safer than human-driven ones. The ability of intelligent systems to prevent accidents through emergency braking and speed control has already been seen in assistance systems that are currently in use. And the elements of drivers’ emotional states, level of distraction, and general human error will no longer be a factor. Computerized cars aren’t likely to show road rage, or text when they’re driving.
An additional benefit is that the expected improvement to traffic flow will reduce fuel consumption and emissions.
We probably won’t see a fleet of networked autonomous trucks on the road for more than a few years, but it does look like this technology is becoming reality. It’s very likely that Amazon will have its drone copters making deliveries before that.
I personally find the artificial intelligence behind these technologies to be some of the coolest work being done at this point in time. But I know there are many of us who still have some reservations about being surrounded by robotic land and air vehicles. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.