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How self-driving tractor-trailers may reinvent what it means to be a truck driver

Expect truck drivers to get new responsibilities behind the wheel once they don’t have to actually drive the truck. (Daimler)
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Daimler Trucks North America showed off a self-driving truck in a glitzy ceremony Tuesday at the Hoover Dam, offering a reminder of the coming era of autonomous vehicles. It says the truck is the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on U.S. highways. Daimler purposefully unveiled the new truck from its subsidiary Freightliner in Nevada, a rare state to have passed laws for driverless vehicles.

Daimler hopes to trigger a national conversation about rules for self-driving vehicles. Only four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have passed laws related to autonomous driving.

Two of the Daimler trucks are being driven exclusively in Nevada for show. So don’t expect to see a self-driving truck transporting actual goods on a highway near you anytime soon. But the trucking industry is eager to test the technology, and awaits national laws to make it feasible to implement the technology.

“This definitely could be a win-win for the driver and the company he works for, to be able to do other things when he is in that autonomous mode,” said Richard Stocking, president of Swift Transportation, which operates nearly 18,000 trucks.

Stocking told me he imagines a driver doing a potpourri of tasks, perhaps tracking deliveries and entering information relevant to his load with the help of a iPad or headset.

He says autonomous trucks may bring in new populations as drivers, such as college students looking to make money on a weekend. Stocking also threw out the possibility of drivers seeing their wages increase as they take on additional duties, and aren’t just paid for the miles they cover.

As businesses are always seeking ways to be more efficient and cut costs, it may seem obvious that trucking companies would want the trucks to be able to operate without a human driver present. However Nevada’s rules currently require a driver to be present in an autonomous vehicle. If that became the norm around the country, trucking companies could be expected to find ways to turn their cabs into mobile offices for drivers.

Daimler’s tractor-trailer, called the Inspiration Truck, relies on cameras and radar to guide itself. It does not use LIDAR, a sensor that is being used by other self-driving vehicle makers such as Google. Like all autonomous vehicles today, the Inspiration Truck has some limitations. It can’t drive on its own during heavy rain, snow or crosswinds above 30 or 40 mph.

Daimler developed a training system for its drivers that Nevada’s department of motor vehicles approved. It’s fairly simple, teaching them how to activate and deactivate the autonomous driving system. It says it picked Nevada because of how thorough its rules are for autonomous vehicles.

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