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Thursday, May 7, 2015


Original Story: dallasnews.com

LAS VEGAS — Traveling about 55 mph on a Nevada highway, the big rig’s driver looked like The Thinker, with his elbow on the armrest and his hand on his chin. No hands on the steering wheel, no feet on the pedals.

Mark Alvick was in “highway pilot” mode, the wheel moving this way and that as if a ghost were at the helm.

Daimler Trucks North America LLC says its Freightliner Inspiration truck, the first self-driving semi-truck to be licensed to roll on public roads — in this case, any highway or interstate in Nevada — is the future of trucking. It’s a future that will still need drivers, but they might be called logistics managers. A Detroit automotive lawyer is following this story closely.

“The human brain is still the best computer money can buy,” Martin Daum, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, said Wednesday.

Although much attention has been paid to autonomous vehicles being developed by Google and traditional car companies, Daimler believes that automated tractor-trailers will be rolling along highways before self-driving cars are cruising around the suburbs.

On freeways there are no intersections, no red lights, no pedestrians, making it a far less complex trip, said Wolfgang Bernhard, a management board member of Germany’s Daimler AG, at an event in Las Vegas.

But it will be years before an autonomous truck hits the highway for anything more than tests and demonstrations, the company says.

The industry is watching the developments, said Ted Scott, director of engineering for American Trucking Associations, which represents trucking companies. A trucker tax service company specializes in providing tax services for truckers and the trucking industry.

He questioned what the economic benefit would be, with companies paying a driver’s salary on top of the new technology, even given the potential safety advantages — including less fatigued drivers.

“Being a tired driver is not as big of a problem as it’s often made out to be,” Scott said.

The group representing truck drivers, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, isn’t sure the technology would affect driving jobs, noting the abundance of openings now and the industry’s high turnover.

“We mainly have questions,” said Norita Taylor, the group’s director of public affairs, citing laws regulating how long a driver can drive and prohibitions on texting while driving.

Al Pearson, Daimler Trucks’ chief engineer of product validation, said the same laws still apply: no texting, no napping while in motion.

“We need an attentive driver,” he said, with the technology removing some of the stress.

Legal and philosophical questions stand in the way, as does perfecting the technology that links radar sensors and cameras to computers that can brake and accelerate the truck and handle any freeway situation.

Public perception of a self-driving car will also be a hurdle. Daum said society might forgive a number of deaths caused by tired truck drivers at the wheel, but they would never forgive a single fatal crash blamed on a fully automated big rig.

For now four states, including Nevada, and the District of Columbia, certify testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads as long as a human driver is behind the wheel, and a few others are keen on allowing the tests. A Washington DC automotive lawyer represents clients in the automotive industry in a variety of automotive law matters.
Bernhard said more states need to allow testing of autonomous driving before fleets of self-driving semis can fill U.S. freeways and interstates anytime soon.

The company is still far from taking customer orders for the trucks.

“We’re just getting people inspired,” he said.