Mercedes-Benz's self-driving big-rig proves autonomous vehicles are coming sooner than we think

Mercedes Actros self-driving truckScreenshot/YouTube/DaimlerA view of the Mercedes-Benz Actros semi-truck driving itself on the Autobahn in Germany.

A Mercedes-Benz big-rig just made history by driving itself on a public road.

It’s the first time a production-model semi-truck has been driven in traffic on an open highway — and it’s evidence that autonomous driving technology is indeed the future of transport.

Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, took its Highway Pilot technology — the package of radar, sensors and cameras that turn regular trucks into self-driving ones — and installed it on a production model big-rig, called the Mercedes Actros.

What’s amazing about this feat is that the Actros is not built as a self-driving truck. It’s just your run-of-the-mill, heavy-duty semi that first came out way back in 1995.

The Highway Pilot technology essentially turns the humble semi-truck into an intelligent vehicle that can “continually observe the entire area in front of the vehicle,” according to Daimer, and “take control of itself in certain situations.”

Daimler says the Highway Pilot system can steer and brake in traffic on its own, and if the truck approaches an obstacle, like a stopped vehicle, the system asks the driver to take over. If the driver doesn’t respond in time, the truck will stop itself.

The system will also ask the driver to take over if weather conditions change, or if there are no visible road markings.

A whole catalogue of other safety features like brake assist, active cruise control and drowsiness detection could help make Highway Pilot-equipped trucks some of the safest on the road.

Indeed, the first examples of this equipment in semi-trucks boils down to one mission: safety. Daimler says self-driving technology for big-rigs is not about letting drivers kick back while the truck does all the work.

Execs at Daimler say the Highway Pilot system is still in testing mode, but may be ready for real-world application by 2020. According to Dr Wolfgang Bernhard with Daimler’s Board of Management, we may even see them hitting the road sooner than that.

During the demonstration, Bernhard says, “we’re probably going to be ready a bit earlier … because our customers showed more interest than we expected them to.”

Policymakers appear to be on board as well, according to Bernhard. He says they “seem to be willing to set the legal framework that we need, so that makes us confident it will ready earlier than later.”

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