The long-haul truck of the future.
There is a revolution taking place, but at a relaxed pace. Calmly and safely, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2015 rolls down the highway at 85 km/h. The tractor and trailer brake and accelerate with precision, riding in the middle of the right-hand lane in flowing traffic. This scene, however, is anything but routine. Though the driver is seated behind the wheel, he is staring at a tablet computer, planning his next trip and then checking the condition of the freight stored on smart pallets in the semitrailer. The truck is being driven by an automated system called Highway Pilot. The human does the thinking and leaves the driving to the computer.
The near-standard study of an autonomously driven truck demonstrates that the vehicle can also handle special situations without a hitch: The truck automatically pulls into the left-hand lane to allow sufficient room to pass a car broken down on the side of the road. The truck and trailer then pull over to the right a little to allow room for an emergency vehicle approaching from the rear, which announced its presence by exchanging data with the truck. Especially among smaller vehicles, this process goes by the name of “car-to-car communication” (C2C), but the umbrella term used is vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V). In the meantime, the driver has found time to reserve a parking spot at the next rest stop, process orders and maintain contacts using a video telephony. Only when the truck leaves the highway does he take the wheel himself and steer the Actros to its destination.
With the technologies demonstrated in the Future Truck 2025, Daimler is setting the standard for the future of long-distance transport. “The truck of the future is a Mercedes-Benz and is driverless,” emphasizes Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the Daimler Board of Management and in charge of trucks and buses, at the premiere of the Future Truck in July 2014 on a closed-off section of the Autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany. “Thanks to this autonomously driving commercial vehicle, we are once again setting the engineering trend for decades to come when it comes to efficiency, safety and connectivity.”
HEADED FOR THE FUTURE
The Future Truck 2025 provides a taste of developments in commercial vehicle technology in the near future. These innovations will have an impact on business models in the transport industry as well as on the demanding job of a truck driver. With factors such as sustained attention, tight schedules and high traffic density, everyday tasks behind the wheel of a big rig place extreme demands on truckers, as confirmed by Klaus Ruff, Deputy Head of Prevention for the Berufsgenossenschaft für Transport und Verkehrswirtschaft (BG Verkehr – Transport Industry Professional Association) based in Hamburg. The intelligent interlinking of the driver assistance systems down to the automated driving itself contributes significantly to vehicle safety, stressed Ruff. The Future Truck 2025 makes the impact of modern technology tangible. In particular, monotonous long-haul routes lasting hours and hours on major highways, often with tight schedules, could be made easier very soon by trucks that drive themselves.
During the trip drivers perform other tasks of considerable value to their companies, including, for example, flexible scheduling of the current trip, planning of upcoming trips and bookkeeping. A truck driver can completely count on the computer systems of his truck, which, thanks to its sensors and exchanging of data with its environment, safely and efficiently heads toward its destination. “When Highway Pilot is activated, driving becomes a secondary task for the trucker,” confirms Sven Ennerst, Head of Truck Development at Daimler. Experts agree that autonomous vehicles will soon be reality on the streets – whether driverless fleets of taxis, privately owned cars or commercial vehicles. Four states in the US – Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan – currently permit operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads under certain conditions. The UK has allowed robotic cars to be used since 2013.
A HIVE MIND FOR SMARTER DECISION-MAKING
Although the Highway Pilot in the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck steers, brakes and accelerates autonomously, the system does not make decisions simply based on information from its own sensors. Instead, the truck acquires a significant amount of information by exchanging data with other vehicles (V2V), with the infrastructure’s stationary communication network (vehicle-to-infrastructure communication or V2I) and by using satellite navigation to determine its position. That is why Stefan Buchner, Head of Mercedes-Benz Trucks, describes the autonomous truck clad in its futuristic adhesive foil disguise, as a “fully connected machine with a hive mentality.”
This principle of shared intelligence holds the future of not just the transport industry but industry as a whole, says Sabina Jeschke. The professor at the Department of Computer Science in Mechanical Engineering at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) in Aachen, places the Future Truck 2025, featured in the “Mobility 4.0″ initiative, on the same level as digitally linked production processes and intralogistics. These kinds of processes, based on the flexible exchange of information between machines, vehicles, warehouses and other elements of industrial process chains, form the backbone of what is referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution.”
Even Uwe Clausen, Head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Dortmund stresses that “potential future efficiency does not lie in vehicles alone but in the interplay of vehicles, infrastructure and transport systems.” The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 is already demonstrating what the future of intelligently connected freight traffic will look like.
FROM TRUCKER TO LOGISTICS EXPERT
Autonomous commercial vehicles will change freight traffic, and that is a major opportunity for the logistics industry. After all, the transport industry is having to face the two-fold challenge of a distinct lack of junior talent and the image of a trucker as a less-than-attractive career option. The need for action in light of these facts was shown in the first study on the future of truck driving conducted with the aid of automobile parts supplier ZF Friedrichshafen and published in 2012: A resounding 87% of first-time employees surveyed named better working conditions as an important goal of future developments. Nothing has changed since then, as seen in a second study released by ZF in 2014.
The job description of a truck driver is changing along with the ergonomics of the cabin. In the past, the cab was primarily designed to be a transport vehicle’s “wheelhouse.” Now, the trend is clearly moving towards making it a flexible office. This evolution of the commercial vehicle cabin into a human-machine interface is especially benefiting truckers, for whom the cabs serve as their place of work and habitat when on a long haul for several days at a time. Daimler – the biggest international commercial vehicle manufacturer in the world – realized early how important it is to upgrade that special domain. That is made clear once more by the second “Mercedes-Benz TopFit Truck” study published in 2013, which discusses measures for keeping fit, including improved sleeping conditions and ways to exercise in the cabin during breaks.
The trucks of the future will not only make more intelligent use of human labor but also increase efficiency and safety. “The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 not only drives itself; it uses ideal driving practices,” says Wolfgang Bernhard. The Highway Pilot steers the truck like a constantly rested driver who knows and can estimate the lay of the land and traffic conditions for miles ahead.
For example, the Highway Pilot can optimize the truck’s handling by accelerating and decelerating predictively. The system integrates proven high-tech systems from Daimler such as our Predictive Powertrain Cruise Control and other solutions from the spacing assistant to the lane departure warning system. In fact, many elements on which the autonomous truck is based are already on board the state-of-the-art long-haul trucks from Mercedes-Benz. This high degree of assistance system development, plus Daimler’s pioneering projects in the area of driverless cars, influenced the work on the Future Truck 2025.
THE FUTURE STARTS NOW
The truck’s success story continues, for there is a continuously growing need for these vehicles and the transport service they provide. That will also have an effect on traffic volume: “The number of transport services, mainly in the area of freight traffic, will continue rising, and highways will bear the brunt of that over the long term,” says Katherina Reiche, undersecretary at the German Federal Ministry of Transportation and Digital Infrastructure in Berlin. For that reason, roads need to be used more efficiently and, according to Reiche, it is vital that roads be upgraded to include smart systems. Environments like that are a prerequisite for the realization of autonomous driving.
Everyone involved in the project still can’t get used to the idea of a 40-ton big rig barreling down the highway someday without driver. That includes the truckers themselves as well as all other people on the road. Here is where projects – such as the near-standard study by Mercedes-Benz – can do a lot to help a large audience appreciate the function and capability of autonomous vehicles in reality. That is also why, as Wolfgang Bernhard said in Magdeburg, “The future of transport starts with the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025.”
THE TRUCK OF THE FUTURE HAS A THOUSAND EYES
In order to operate with precision, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 has to know where it is and what is happening around it at all times. This is partly ensured by extensive technology with numerous optical sensors, and partly by wirelessly exchanging data with other road users and traffic infrastructure.
Human drivers are supposed to keep both eyes on the road. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 does that with an entire optical arsenal. Signals from the camera and other sensors are combined, resulting in a sophisticated image of the truck’s environment in real time.
The Highway Pilot, the virtual driver for the near-standard study, makes its driving decisions based on that image and other information from the satellite navigation system, three-dimensional map material and wireless communication with other vehicles and the infrastructure. Many components of this sensor system are already part of existing driver assist systems in state-of-the-art trucks from Mercedes-Benz. What’s new is that they are smartly connected.
The thousand eyes of the Future Truck 2025 include, for example, radar sensors at the front, which cover both long-distance scanning (250-meter range, 18-degree beam width) and short-range scanning (70-meter range, 130-degree beam width) in the direction of travel. They are known as the foundation of our spacing assistant and emergency braking assistant. The road to the left and the right of the vehicle is also monitored by side radar sensors, positioned in front of the rear axle. They each have a range of 60 meters and a beam width of 170 degrees.
Besides the radar, there is a stereo camera (100-meter range, 45-degree horizontal angle of view and 27-degree vertical angle of view) pointed toward the front. It identifies road surfaces and their lanes, crucial to automatic guidance. Moreover, the stereo camera detects pedestrians and any other moving or stationary objects within the space being scanned. The results are used to compute the space available to the truck. It also analyzes road surface conditions and reads information on traffic signs.
Combining all this data in the truck’s central computer renders a more precise picture of the vehicle’s environment than what the human eye is capable of. However, the Highway Pilot does not make its decisions based solely on sensor data. Instead, it also includes information from the three-dimensional maps, which are also used for the Predictive Powertrain Control (PPC) assistance system. Added to that is the continuous exchange of data with other vehicles (vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V) and a network of fixed base stations (vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, or V2I). The data is transmitted on the G5 WiFi frequency at 5.9 gigahertz.
This communication keeps the autonomous truck apprised of the traffic situation in its immediate vicinity more quickly than a human driver: For example, the Highway Pilot can be made aware of an emergency stop made by a vehicle ahead of it at a distance of roughly 500 meters and can immediately adapt to the situation.
THE TRADITION OF TRANSPORTING GOODS EFFICIENTLY
Daimler’s innovativeness put the Future Truck 2025 at the top of a centuries-old tradition. Finding more efficient ways to transport goods has been a goal of technological development since the first advanced civilizations. From a modern perspective, the first steps seem almost trivial: Pack animals can transport goods more efficiently than people; animal-drawn carriages can carry more goods than a cart or sled pulled by a human being. The early attempts at track-guided transport of mass goods along grooves in ancient roads were more sophisticated, and hooking together several track-guided vehicles pulled by beasts of burden as the main source of power in mining railways has been around since the Middle Ages.
Decisive spurts of innovation in the area of goods transport eventually came from England in the 18th and 19th centuries. No previous system of transport was as efficient as the networks of artificial canals and railroad. However, canal boats and trains lacked the flexibility to take freight on a random route from the sender to the recipient – both means of transport depended on their infrastructure network. Thus, the truck with a combustion engine became the most important means of transporting freight. In 1896, the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG – Daimler Motors Corporation) introduced the first truck in history, powered by a 4-kW (6-horsepower), two-cylinder gasoline engine with 1,060 cubic centimeters of displacement. It had a load capacity of two metric tons, and test runs in England proved its average speed to be 12 km/h. That same year, the line of trucks grew to a total of four different models. That paved the way for further development of commercial vehicles. After 1900, this new technology found greater and greater acceptance in the transport industry, which was dominated by horses and carts and the railroad.
Both Benz & Co. and DMG made a huge leap in the efficiency of truck power trains in 1923 when they each introduced their first trucks with diesel engines. Over the next several years, the compression-ignition engine asserted itself over all others as the standard for commercial vehicles. The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 is powered by the latest generation of these first truck diesel engines: a 330-kW (449-horsepower), six-cylinder engine that meets Euro 6 emissions standards.
Throughout the history of trucks, a main driver of innovation has been the desire to make engines stronger, more economical and cleaner. Boosting efficiency also always meant increasing the vehicles’ transport volume and load capacity through smart concepts without falling short of the legal regulations on total length, allowable total weight and maximum axle load. More room for cargo was created in particular by cab-over-engine (COE) design, in which the engine is below the driver’s cabin and no longer beneath a hood protruding to the front. The first truck in this form was the LP 315 introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1955. The Mercedes-Benz COE LP 333, known as the “Millipede” from 1958, with two steered front axles, managed to offer customers maximum load capacity despite the extremely restrictive national road traffic licensing regulations imposed on trucks at the time.
Since then, visionary studies have repeatedly explored how to increase the efficiency of freight transport by road even further. At the 1983 International Motor Show, Stuttgart-based bodywork specialist Steinwinter unveiled the prototype for a revolutionary truck. Its tractor, powered by a Mercedes-Benz engine and barely taller than a super sports car was completely covered by the semitrailer. Trials currently being conducted using truck-trailer combinations that are 6.5 meters longer than conventional trucks are much more realistic. They are expected to prove their advantageous transported freight to fuel consumption ratio mainly on highways.