What does it feel like to be driven by a computer the size of a truck?

Remarkably underwhelming, it turns out. But that’s exactly what the team at Daimler Trucks North America want. They have just been awarded the first license for an autonomous commercial vehicle on the roads of the United States. The license was granted in Nevada, a state known for its progressive attitudes to self-driving vehicles.

Self-driving cars tend to steal the headlines, but the autonomous vehicles most of us are likely to interact with first are going to be trucks. The giant big rigs that haul almost everything we buy, would be much safer if drivers do not get fatigued on long trips. They are also far more efficient if they can platoon together (which BBC Future has talked about before, and other companies are also working on).

A driver will have to be behind the wheel, ready to take over in situations the computer cannot handle, such as roadworks or bad weather, but in other situations he or she would be free to take their eyes off the road.

Daimler’s truck is capable of “level three” self-driving – on a scale that goes from zero to four - which means it can take over the driving itself if required. But the company says the driver will only become a passenger under a controlled set of circumstances.

The system was first demonstrated in Germany last year but on a closed section of road. When BBC Future joins the testing team, it’s on a section of a public highway. And on Nevada’s freeways, the driver can now chill out, or even take care of paperwork on the truck’s built-in tablet.

The 40-tonne, 16m-long vehicle drives along at highway speeds with the computer in charge, and the drive is entirely uneventful. 

If it turns out the truck does need some input from the driver – such as if it needs to turn off at an exit or is approaching road works, the driver takes back control.

“The system is called ‘Highway Pilot’, so this is on freeways and highways at this point. We don’t have it for the inner city,” says Steve Nadig, chief engineer at Daimler Trucks North America. He says there is some monitoring work needed that will keep the driver in his seat, but that his workload will be light enough to allow him to do other things.

“Right now, the driver spends 10 hours behind the wheel of the vehicle, and I can tell you from personal experience, that’s very fatiguing,” says Nadig. “In order to relieve him of some of his duties, we think the driver will be more fit, focus on some of his logistics work… and give him more rest in the bunk than he’s had in the past.”

The truck’s system tells the driver when autonomous mode can be activated – and also gives him a countdown when he needs to resume control of the vehicle.

And there are clues too for the other drivers that the automated truck would share the roads with; the autonomous model has LED lights that turn different colours according to whether a human – or a computer – has control

Just passed a truck glowing blue on the Nevada highway? That was a computer at the controls…

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