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Autonomous trucks reach a new milestone (with video)

(Photo credit: Dean Croke/FreightWaves)
(Photo credit: Dean Croke/FreightWaves)

Recently I had the opportunity to test-drive Covenant Transport Group’s latest addition to its fleet – the amazingly clever automatic Freightliner Cascadia fully equipped with a Detroit engine and drivetrain along with the intelligent ‘Assurance 5.0’ suite of safety systems. Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way from my first experience with Detroit back in 1990 driving a Ford LNT9000 in the Outback of Australia. The two trucks couldn’t be more different.

The new Cascadia from Freightliner is truly a great mile-making truck for any fleet size, and by that I mean it creates much lower levels of wind resistance on the outside and is incredibly quiet and comfortable for the driver on the inside. The big change on the inside is the digital dashboard – no more gauges, which for new tech-savvy drivers to the industry makes for an easy transition to truck driving. Touchscreen functionality allows for quick transitions between applications including pre- and post-trip analysis, hours-of-service, dispatch communications plus a variety of back-office workflow functions. Roadside traffic signs and posted speed limits on the instrument cluster are also great additions, giving the driver more information in the immediate field of view.

Level 2 Autonomous – a big jump from Level 1

This Level 2 autonomous Freightliner is simply outstanding, which coming from a diehard stick-shift 379 Peterbilt fan is high praise indeed. From the second I saw the sleek aerodynamic design and attention to detail on the inside, I could already see high MPG numbers and lots of easy miles from the airbags installed on the front axle, which not only make for a smooth ride, they allow the front end to drop an inch closer to the ground at higher speeds to reduce wind resistance.

“The big difference between Level 1 and Level 2 autonomous is electronic steering in addition to adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, pedestrian warning, collision avoidance, and active brake assist,” according to Bobby Camp, Shop Manager at Covenant Transport Group in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On the road, the truck is extremely intelligent and keeps an eye on things beyond the driver’s field of view with the major change being Detroit’s Assurance technology being able to calculate both the speed and distance of vehicles in front of the truck. The forward-facing camera quickly ascertains whether or not following distance is increasing or decreasing, and in the case of the latter the truck automatically slows, downshifting and engaging the engine brake in the process – all without the driver doing anything but remaining vigilant. 

Dive deeper

The Detroit Assurance system collects, shares and validates safety-related information by tracking up to 40 objects simultaneously up to 660 feet away and reporting information about six vehicles in the truck’s path – their distance, velocity, width, lateral offset, type and confidence level – while the Video Radar Decision Unit (VRDU) refreshes the speed, distance and time calculations 200 times per second. All these actions work together to provide the safest environment possible based on nine million development miles in Europe and 1.5 million development miles in the U.S., including two winter test cycles. Behind the wheel of this new truck, all of that testing is evident in the careful attention to detail right down to the foldaway ladder for the top bunk in the sleeper.

(Photo credit: Detroit)

Will drivers take to it?

Without a doubt, This is especially true for newer drivers to the industry. The new Freightliner Cascadia has all the comforts of home, yet is remarkably quiet and smooth. The lack of in-cab vibration, road noise and vertical movement (from rough roads) creates a less-fatiguing environment. These factors alone will lead to better-rested drivers on our nation’s highways. 

What really sets this truck apart from the rest is how much attention has been paid to the little things, including Intelligent High Beam in which the Detroit Assurance camera technology automatically switches to low beams when it detects the headlights or tail lights of another vehicle. My favorite is Side Guard Assist, which detects objects in the truck’s blind spot and warns the driver not to change lanes or turn into the occupied lane – great technology for any driver no matter how many miles they’ve driven. 

Covenant’s brand new Freightliner Cascadia is loaded with technology, yet is comfortable, safe and easy to drive – it gets my vote. 

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