Forget Self-Driving Cars, Daimler Has a Self-Driving Semi-Tractor

Forget Google’s self-driving car. The most revolutionary vehicle on the roads these days might just be Freightliner and Daimler’s (Mercedes’ parent) self-driving semi-tractor trailer rig.

Colored gleaming silver and decorated with glowing LED lights, the rig called Inspiration looks more like something out of a sci-fi flick than Smokey and the Bandit. The most impressive feature, though, is what’s inside an autonomous driving system called Highway Pilot. The Inspiration was given an impressive rollout last month in an impressive place: the top of the Hoover Dam in mid-May.

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The Highway Pilot system inside Inspiration is quite impressive and once again shows us that Daimler (OTC: DDAIY) and not Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) is now the undisputed leader in the autonomous car field. According to our friends at Bloomberg Business, some of the Highway Pilot’s capabilities include:

  • The ability to read lane markings.
  • The ability to steer through curves and turns.
  • The ability to detect vehicles in front of it.
  • Coordinate convoys of trucks for better fuel mileage.

It also has some sensible limitations that any driver that has been scared to death by an aggressive trucker will appreciate. The Highway Pilot cannot overtake slower cars or change lanes. It won’t work in cities and roads with insufficient marking either. It is not supposed to be able to work in cities and cannot park the truck either.

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Truckers will love the Inspiration because they will be able to text, read books, play video games, talk on the phone and even watch TV while sitting behind the wheel. That might get more people into an industry that’s having a hard time attracting drivers. Since demand for trucks is going to increase, the popularity of this idea is likely to increase as trucking companies have a harder time finding competent drivers.

Teamsters do not have to worry about losing jobs anytime soon. They will still drive the Inspiration in the city, just not on the highway. It will take the boring work out of their jobs. More importantly, it could help people who get bored by long-distance driving get into the industry.

There are some questions here, including insurance and whether drivers will appreciate convoys of trucks barreling down America’s highways. It will probably take a while before those questions are answered and the trucking industry starts adopting it.

My guess is that self-driving semis will become the norm within a few years and they will lower insurance costs if they can limit the number of accidents, which drives up premiums. One has to wonder when the self-driving delivery truck and pickup truck will start making their appearance.