Development of autonomous vehicles over the past decade or so has not contributed to the demise of Western civilisation, as some early detractors may have preached, but instead has resulted in the progressive adoption of a number of key systems which offer to significantly improve the safety and efficiency of modern commercial vehicles.
In many cases, what were futuristic concepts just a few years ago are now the new realities available in current generation trucks.
The Mercedes-Benz Actros is enjoying considerable success across many world markets including Australia and is available with an expanding range of autonomous-related functions.
The introduction of the Active Drive Assist (ADA) system by Daimler Trucks in Europe in 2018 made the Actros the first series production truck to be capable of partially automated driving (SAE Level 2).
ADA is another step forward in terms of safety and delivers much more than the adaptive cruise control systems which are becoming more commonly available across a number of manufacturers.
Under certain preconditions ADA actively supports the driver in the longitudinal and lateral guidance of the truck and can automatically maintain the distance to the vehicle ahead, accelerate and also steer if the necessary system conditions, such as adequate curve radius or clearly visible road markings, are met.
The adaptive cruise control function integrated into the ADA means if the driver gets too close to a vehicle in front, the ADA can automatically brake the truck until the pre-determined minimum distance has been re-established.
Once that is the case, the system can then re-accelerate the truck up to the pre-determined set speed.
The newest generation of ADA can do even more and the system is capable of initiating an emergency stop if it recognises that the driver has not been actively involved in the driving process for a certain period of time, which could be related to fatigue, inattention or medical issues.
Initially the system requests the driver via visual and acoustic signals to place their hands on the steering wheel.
If, even after multiple warnings, there is no response in the actions of braking, steering, accelerating or operating the vehicle systems via the buttons on the steering wheel, within its limits the ADA system can brake until the truck safely comes to a complete standstill while staying within its lane and warning the following vehicles by automatically initiating the hazard lights.
As the truck comes to a standstill, the system can automatically engage the electronic parking brake.
In addition, the doors are unlocked so that paramedics and other first responders can directly reach the driver in the case of a medical emergency.
Thankfully, we don’t have to resort to feigning a heart attack to test the ADA system, although it does demonstrate its effectiveness during our test drive when a passenger vehicle travelling in front decides, too late, to take an off ramp and leaves its rear bodywork partially in the lane in which we are following.
We are far enough away to take evasive action if it becomes necessary and it is reassuring to feel the Actros’s brakes applied automatically.
The only function missing from the scenario is an autonomous blast of the air horns directed at the fool who risked getting jammed between a semi and a guardrail. Previously we’ve had opportunities to assess Mercedes-Benz Actros trucks which have been equipped with the MirrorCam system and on other occasions the Predictive Powertrain Management system.
However, this Actros 2653 is the first time we have been able to experience those two systems in the one truck, plus we are able to experience both in conjunction with the Active Driver Assistance system.
The benefits of MirrorCam are numerous and the familiarity with the screens mounted on the A pillars quickly becomes intuitive and again we ask ourselves why wasn’t this available years ago.
The effectiveness of MirrorCam is further highlighted when negotiating tight turns and reversing due to the automatic switching to panoramic mode providing an increased field of vision to the driver as the panning function delivers the situation, where the displayed image follows the trailer(s) according to input from the steering wheel angle.
When overtaking on the highway the driver no longer needs to receive a headlight flash from the vehicle being passed thanks to the bar markings on the screens which show when it is safe to merge back into the left lane.
The MirrorCam system is easily and quickly adjustable to suit various lengths of trailers and makes most drivers look like experts by delivering the ability to park within 20mm of a dock, which saves time and damage costs.
The Predictive Powertrain Control once set and left alone will unobtrusively use its smarts to maintain momentum and maximise fuel efficiency by harnessing information from within the Global Positioning System using three dimensional topographic mapping combined with history from previous trips to provide the truck with the details of the road ahead for up to two kilometres.
The system will continue to learn and plan from data collected on routes which haven’t been travelled previously.
Data from the on-board weighing system is also constantly utilised to calculate loads, throttle and brake applications as well as gear selections.
This has the potential for enormous benefits in fuel efficiency and trip times.
For instance, when climbing a steep hill where the inclinometer in the prime mover senses that the top of the hill has been reached, yet the trailer(s) are still subject to gravitational pull due to still travelling on the upwards gradient, the Actros remains under power until the right time to ease the accelerator and upshift as the trailers pass the apex of the rise.
We’ve been in other trucks equipped with conventional cruise control where the power was decreased and an upshift attempted at precisely the wrong point which required intervention from the driver to prevent a massive loss of momentum.
Another situation in which the PPC makes its presence known is when travelling along an undulating road.
Where possible it will ‘eco-roll’ in neutral and when driving down into a dip because the Actros knows what’s up ahead it will accelerate slightly approaching the bottom of the dip and then apply more power as needed to climb the other side.
This can create the situation where the truck is travelling ten or so kilometres faster at the base of a climb than it would be if using a conventional form of cruise control or relying upon the driver’s knowledge and skill to apply the power at just the right instant to maximise the efficiency of climbing the rise, and at the same time avoiding inadvertent over-speeds.
The Active Steering function, however, takes just a little time to get used to.
Initially we found we were continually pushing slightly against the additional force used by the truck to keep in the selected position within the lane.
The realisation that this driver’s natural lane positioning is slightly to the left of centre is the impetus to electronically realign the truck by making a small adjustment in the appropriate app via the centre touch screen which results in the truck shifting ever so slightly to the left and maintaining that position within its lane without any input from the driver.
The same adjustment process can also be used to locate the truck closer to the right-hand side of the lane if that is the preference of the driver.
When no longer pushing against the resistance delivered by the electronic-controlled steering the driver’s task is relaxed significantly. The highlights of the Actros’s interactive multimedia cockpit are the two screens with one positioned in front of driver (dashboard) which is adjustable from the controls on the steering wheel with the main displays being speedo, tacho and air pressure gauges as well as the complement of driver support readouts such as fuel burn, and adaptive cruise control settings.
The multimedia display located on the dash to the left of the driver has components familiar to those fitted to the latest Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and is a leap forward in the connectivity between the trucks and their drivers and operators.
The centre touch screen has the capability to be programmed to incorporate more than 200 ‘soft’ switches to operate components such as power take offs.
The screen responds to operator’s input by making an on-screen switch available, which is not dissimilar to using an app on a smartphone.
Reliability and durability are extended significantly as there is no longer reliance upon physical contact-making and -breaking switches. Daimler Trucks recognised early-on that autonomous trucking has enormous potential to fundamentally change the road transport industry.
Crucially, Daimler also recognised it will take time to do it right with safety being the priority.
The path to increased levels of autonomous trucking, to that end, is a marathon and not a sprint.