A completely autonomous, self-driving vehicle drove down the autobahn recently during one of the first tests on a motorway under real traffic conditions. The kicker is that it wasn't one of Google's self-driving vehicles or even a smaller electric car. It was a Mercedes-Benz truck and it traveled at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.
A truck, you say?
The Mercedes-Benz Actros was powered by an automated system called Highway Pilot. Daimler, the corporation responsible for Mercedes, made an official announcement with all the details of the recent trip.
According to them, the Actros traveled a total of about 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) on a stretch of the A8 highway between the towns of Denkendorf and Stuttgart. Obviously, the truck made the trip without incident, which is good news for the future of self-driving vehicles.
How the System Works
Daimler developed the system that's used to pilot the vehicle -- Highway Pilot -- which employs a variety of sensors and cameras to measure stats and distance. Like Google's self-driving system, the Highway Pilot will constantly measure the distance from nearby vehicles, make lane adjustments and more. The system is also programmed to apply the brakes if another vehicle merges too close in front of it or encroaches in its space. In fact, the system has the ability to override driver control when it detects a potential hazard or recognizes the need to react. It's no secret that computers can react a considerable amount faster than humans in the heat of the moment.
The Highway Pilot system isn't quite ready to hit the roadways without a supporting driver behind the wheel, however. One is still required to man the vehicle when the automated system cannot, such as during inclement weather or while exiting a highway.
The vehicle will also come to a stop "independently and safely" if there are obstacles in its way or the roadway has been changed -- like during extreme construction. This only happens if the driver doesn't respond in time, and it's not sudden because, for obvious reasons, that would be dangerous.
Daimler's Highway Pilot system has been tested on roadways all over the world including the U.S. and Germany. More importantly, the test that recently took place was the first to happen under real traffic conditions, which means that other vehicles were on the road and nothing was scripted.
The Future of Driving
Because the Actros is a freight truck, the implications are enormous. As Daimler claims, the Highway Pilot system is "superior to any human being" because it can never be bogged down by exhaustion or distracted by events happening inside or outside the vehicle. Self-driving freight carriers would mean safer roadways for everyone, especially the drivers required to make long-distance trips to haul the cargo inside.
Unfortunately, there's no mention of how much power is required to operate the Highway Pilot system and propel the vehicle simultaneously. It may be important to get accurate load cell readings regularly before long trips. It's even more important considering freight carriers must sustain heavy loads consistently on a day to day basis.
An Evolving Industry
By now, a great deal of auto manufacturers are working on self-driving vehicles, not including the big tech companies like Google or Apple -- who is rumored to be working on a "smart" vehicle of some kind.
Even with all these companies hard at work trying to push innovation to its brink, we're still far off from seeing them on roadways, at least on a grand scale. We're certainly years -- maybe even a decade -- away from seeing autonomous, self-driving vehicles in the consumers' hands.