Just over 30 km of autobahn, with interspersed open stretches, slow-moving traffic and a broken-down passenger car. So nothing special? On the contrary: there is a truck driver at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, but something else exercises control in this situation: The “Highway Pilot” drives the truck autonomously. The driver attends to other matters during the journey, and only intervenes when required. Tomorrow’s technology in a truck of today: driving on the autobahn in the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025.
“Highway Pilot” activated – technology takes the wheel
The all-important message lights up immediately after starting off: “Highway Pilot available” says the display in the instrument cluster. Using the installed map and the markings on the 3.5-metre wide motorway lane, the technology of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 has identified the vehicle’s position on the A14 autobahn near Magdeburg.
The driver switches the system on, then takes his hands off the wheel – the display confirms with “Highway Pilot active”. Nothing exciting happens as the revolutionary mode change takes place. The semitrailer combination continues to travel at exactly the set speed, in the centre of the right-hand lane. Using the truck’s intelligent sensors and computing power, the steering carries out slight corrections by itself. The first impression: autonomous driving is amazingly unspectacular.
The driver wants to relax in comfort, so he presses a button on the seat armrest: the driver’s seat immediately moves backwards, and pivots to the right by 45 degrees for a comfortable seating position. The driver is able to stretch his legs in comfort, as if sitting in an armchair at home. He is able to reach the steering wheel, but the brake pedal only by an artistic foot contortion. No matter, the Future Truck 2025 is not driverless, the “Highway Pilot” is now doing the driving.
Safely on the road with radar sensors, camera and V2V/V2I communication
The “Highway Pilot” is a combination of radar sensors at the front and sides, a stereo camera behind the windscreen, precise three-dimensional maps and V2V/V2I communication – which stands for Vehicle to Vehicle and Vehicle to Infrastructure – the exchange of information between the truck and other vehicles, and with the world outside the motorway.
Tomorrow has already come in the Future Truck 2025, as the instruments already show: Instead of a conventional instrument cluster it has high-resolution, graphic colour display. On the left the display shows the fuel and AdBlue levels, as well as the engine speed, and on the right the driving time and social data. In the centre it shows the vehicle speed in precise digital form, and also in analogue form using a stylised dial instrument.
When the “Highway Pilot” is activated, the information in the display is reduced to a minimum and all the data now appear on the screen of the tablet computer in the centre console. This is now the truck’s central control and communication instrument. The developers now no longer refer to the interface between the driver and truck as “instruments”, but as the Human Machine Interface or Human Machine Interaction, or HMI for short. This is the centrepiece of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, and is presently still a disguised, near-series study.
Acknowledging assignments and reserving a parking space while on the move
The semitrailer combination of the future is now moving smoothly with the traffic at a cruising speed of 85 km/h, always keeping the correct safety distance of 60 m from the vehicle ahead and staying precisely on course. The initial apprehension in the cockpit has now been allayed. Likewise the temptation to keep a constant eye on the traffic situation, so as to intervene at any time. This is not necessary. Even gusting cross-winds do not bring the truck off-track – the technology corrects its course more rapidly and safely than any human driver. The driver might now decide to compose an email or listen to music.
Or attend to more important matters. For example use the tablet to acknowledge an assignment that has just come in by V2I communication, or take a look at the proposed route in navigation mode and choose a suitable service station for the next break. The menu for the day promptly appears on the screen. So the driver can take the opportunity to pre-order the meal of his choice and reserve a parking space. Are there any friends or colleagues logged-in on the same route? Easy to find out, perhaps they can arrange to meet up for the next rest break.
The Future Truck 2025 pays attention and makes room
The traffic of tomorrow will likewise have its share of unforeseen incidents and breakdowns, occasionally slow down and come to a stop, but the Future Truck 2025 smoothly adapts to the conditions. A message appears in the display: “Emergency vehicle approaching”. The information comes from a police car, by V2V communication. The communication between vehicles works perfectly, the truck automatically moves over to the right until it reaches the lane marking, clears the way for the fast-moving police car and then returns to the centre of its lane.
Meanwhile the driver remains in his working position and merely observes the scene. And uses Skype to answer an enquiry from a colleague travelling well behind about the cause of the delay. Because the “Highway Pilot” is able to announce a broken-down vehicle ahead in advance. It is stationary on the emergency lane, so the truck automatically moves left to the centreline and passes the broken-down vehicle while keeping a safety distance, as it also has its eye on the traffic in the left lane. After passing the obstacle, the truck returns to the right-hand lane and accelerates back to its cruising speed.
Overtaking is manual, the driver retains control
Minutes later the display reports a slow-moving vehicle ahead. In autonomous mode the Future Truck 2025 would patiently follow the slow-mover, as it never leaves its lane. But in this case overtaking is worthwhile, owing to the large difference in speeds. So the driver pivots the seat into the driving position, takes over manual control, indicates and changes lane to overtake. Returning to his lane, he can then hand control back to the “Highway Pilot”. Important note: The driver of the autonomous truck is always in full control, and can always override the technology by steering, braking or accelerating as required.
Plan the next tour while on the move
There are more important things to do than manually keep pace in a convoy of trucks: the tablet reports another assignment, this time with a refrigerated semitrailer. Once again V2I communication comes into its own: an app is used to activate the trailer’s refrigeration unit directly from the tablet, and it is pre-cooled at exactly the right time. When the driver arrives to pick up the trailer, it will be at just the right temperature.
But there is still time for a break beforehand: the vehicle is approaching the chosen service station. In good time the “Highway Pilot” announces the exit road on the tablet and display, then starts a countdown for the driver to take over the necessary manual control. A welcome break: the reserved parking space is available, and the pre-ordered meal is on the dining table in the service station right on time. All perfectly normal in the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck, and in 2025.