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Autonomous Trucks Cleared For Roads : News

THE next big thing in autonomous vehicles really is big. Car-maker Daimler has just unveiled a self-driving truck – the first to be approved for use on US roads.

For the freight industry, the Inspiration Truck holds the promise of a future with fewer accidents, lower fuel costs and well-rested drivers.

In recent years, autonomous trucks have been the focus of attention for companies that need vehicles for routes where they are unlikely to encounter people or other vehicles, such as on farms or remote mines.

The Inspiration is different, designed to travel on the highway alongside ordinary cars and trucks. Its clearance to drive on Nevada's highways could be big news for the trucking industry, which struggles to find drivers to do the exhausting work. If it succeeds, other big self-driving vehicles could follow, such as garbage trucks or city buses.

Autonomous trucks have a few potential advantages over their hands-on counterparts. For one thing, they could help cut fuel use, as they accelerate and decelerate more gently than a human driver might. Programming multiple trucks to travel in convoys would be beneficial, too: one truck could travel in the slipstream created by the one in front, reducing air resistance and so using less fuel. The trucks would communicate wirelessly to tell each other when to slow down or speed up automatically.

The freight industry is one that has already embraced robotic help. In the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, for example, robotic cranes move containers around. Last year, the country announced a five-year plan to prepare for vehicles like the Inspiration.

Proponents of self-driving vehicles also tout their safety benefits. The vast majority of road accidents are down to human error, and artificial intelligence would take those mistakes out of the equation, they say.

"A car never gets tired. It doesn't have any emotions when it's driving home from a break-up with its girlfriend. It doesn't get drunk or old and slow," says Patrick Vogel at the Free University of Berlin in Germany.

Although a human driver still sits in the cab, the Inspiration trucks know how to stay in lane, change speed and avoid collisions. A dashboard-mounted camera with a 100-metre range can recognise pavement markings and keep the truck in its lane. Radar monitors the road up to 250 metres ahead to spot other vehicles, and the truck also automatically complies with speed limits.

But like other self-driving vehicles, the Inspiration is still years away from being produced commercially. Daimler plans to collect real-world data on Nevada's roads to help improve the truck further.

There are non-technical issues that need to be addressed, too. It is not yet clear whether self-driving vehicles can be insured, for instance, or where blame would be attributed in the event of an accident. And the long-term implications for truckers' jobs or roadside businesses like motels and truck stops are also hazy.

"Before it became clear that the technical issues could be addressed, these were academic exercises," says Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "Now, they've become very real questions."

Contact NewScientist

Sources : Autonomous Trucks Photo | Autonomous trucks Article


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