Daimler has progressed from its European tests of Mercedes Benz cars and now, although under human control in urban situations, control will be passed to the sensors and computer out on the open highway. This seems a sensible compromise at this stage, the complexities of stop-start city driving would seem to be a step too far at this stage.
In the US, individual state laws make the possibility of introducing a country wide standard virtually impossible without major changes to the law. Most states have no specific rules regarding the control of a vehicle. New York alone for example, insists via a 1967 statute that drivers must have one hand on the steering wheel at all times, the problem for those occupying autonomous vehicles will therefore be adjudged differently from state to state. New York also complicates matters further with its insistence on the ‘rule of two’, the reluctance of prosecutors to press a case unless two traffic violations occur simultaneously, something less likely with an autonomous vehicle.
Nevada was selected as the demonstration location because it is one of four states, plus the District of Columbia, with laws regulating autonomous vehicle operation. Nevada legislation passed in 2011 and 2013 regulates the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles. The legislation includes commercial trucks and sets standards specifying the number of miles an autonomous vehicle must have been tested in certain conditions before it can be granted a license to be driven in Nevada. Daimler obtained a special permit from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to operate the Freightliner Inspiration Truck on public roads near Las Vegas after supplying state officials with detailed information on the safety systems in the truck and the training program for the drivers who will still occupy the cab.
Freightliner was awarded the first license to test one of its truck range on the highway this week at a high profile event held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, hosted by Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) president & CEO Martin Daum. State Governor Brian Sandoval took part in the inaugural trip of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck in autonomous mode with Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG Daimler Trucks & Buses, at the controls. Gov. Sandoval said: “Nevada is proud to be making transportation history today by hosting the first US public highway drive for a licensed autonomous commercial truck. The application of this innovative technology to one of America’s most important industries will have a lasting impact on our state and help shape the New Nevada economy. The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has been closely monitoring the advancements being made in autonomous vehicle development and reviewed DTNA’s safety, testing and training plans before granting permission for this demonstration of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck.”
Many of the new breed of cars and trucks will have cameras and video equipment, as well as sensors, to assess lane control and potentially help decide responsibility in the case of accidents. And accidents there will surely be. The confirmation that these vehicles are actually now operating on public roads has huge ramifications for the insurance industry. Len Benson from insurance company Peter Lole & Co feels there are matters which need careful consideration in the light of this scenario. He says:
“As with other completely autonomous transport systems, London’s Dockland Light Railway for example, one assumes that the operator has a form of public liability cover in place, perhaps working in tandem with the manufacturers product liability insurance. Even with a human driver keeping a watching brief in the cab, the fact is that accidents are bound to occur, hopefully less frequently than at present. If however a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian who steps out in front of the vehicle, does happen, someone has to carry insurance against these and other possibilities, such as accident through mechanical failure.”
Other manufacturers will be watching the Freightliner Nevada trial carefully. Car manufacturers have already progressed from the now commonplace cruise control to more sophisticated additions such as ‘lane keeping’ and ‘super cruise’ functions and Volvo’s evocatively named ‘Pilot Assist’ function whereby the ‘pilot’ hits a button which enables the car to ‘lock on’ to the preceding vehicle. If the driver fails to slow when told, the vehicle does it for him. By such subtle inclusions we are liable to see the driver’s world change radically over the next decade.