In March of this year, Mercedes-Benz sent ripples through the internet when it set an unthinkably futuristic autonomous vehicle loose on the streets of San Francisco—the F015. Even for the most automotively apathetic observer, the F015 was a head-turner. Tech blogs exploded: The Verge gushed that this “silver bullet from the future” looked like “uninterrupted flowing metal from top to bottom,” adding that “there are lasers out front, and it talks to pedestrians nearby.” Alex Davies at Wired dubbed it, “The Robo-Car That Made Me Want to Stop Driving,” and wrote that Mercedes had created a vision of the future in which “the only acceptable materials are stainless steel, white leather, carbon fiber, and wood. Automotive fatalities are but a memory. Cars are brilliant, both in their intelligence and luster.”
While the F015’s good looks grabbed headlines, it’s far from all-style-no-substance. Underneath the gleaming exterior and wall-to-wall interior 4K screens, the car’s navigation is a fully contained system that integrates maps, cameras, and infrared sensors. Although still in the research/concept car phase, the vehicle is 100 percent autonomous, with a suite of sensory technologies that can react to obstacles with greater accuracy than the human eye. In the event of an impact, the F015 also has built-in safety mechanisms that protect the driver: It tightens the seatbelts, cracks the windows to enable the car to absorb more of the impact, and slams on the brakes sooner and faster than a human driver could react.
One would never imagine a vehicle as sleek, beautiful, and culturally transformative as the F015 running on a fuel as antiquated as oil.
Of course, one would never imagine a vehicle as sleek, beautiful, and culturally transformative as the F015 running on a fuel as antiquated as oil. That’s why the F015 is both a plug-in and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The company is working under the assumption that in 2030, when Daimler approximates that the car will be available to customers, we will have already left gasoline behind.
Tomorrow’s technology, already here
Despite the number of competitors trying to elbow their way into the emerging autonomous vehicles space, Daimler appears to have taken an early lead—if not in technology, then clearly in wow-factor.
However, although the company believes that an autonomous transportation future is “inevitable,” that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done in order to streamline the transition.
Jessica Altschul, Daimler’s Manager of Outreach and Innovation Policy, spoke with The Fuse about how technology, regulatory frameworks, and public acceptance must progress in tandem in the next few years.
Most consumers would be surprised by the extent to which autonomous vehicle technology has already infiltrated today’s cars.
She points out that most consumers would be surprised by the extent to which autonomous vehicle technology has already infiltrated today’s cars. According to Altschul, Daimler’s vehicles incorporate safety features including lane-keeping and braking assistance, adaptive cruise control to maintain appropriate distances between other vehicles on the highway, and collision avoidance. Such features are typically introduced in higher-end models, but are quickly becoming part of the company’s entire fleet.
As for the dual plug-in and hydrogen fuel cell powertrain of the F015, Altschul points out that Daimler is attuned to the fact that more cities around the world are adopting regulations that would only allow zero-emission vehicles in certain areas. She adds, “We know range is important to our customers, which is one of the reasons we decided to integrate the fuel cell and battery electric systems in the F015. The total range is around 1,100 kilometers (200 km on the battery and an additional 900 on electricity from the fuel cell) or almost 700 miles combined. That kind of range is similar to what we see from clean diesel powered vehicles, but emitting zero emissions. Additionally, the battery can be charged using non-contact induction technology, and even monitored and controlled using a smartphone.”
Only two months after the F015 took to the streets of San Francisco, Daimler announced The Freightliner Inspiration semi-autonomous heavy duty truck.
According to Daimler, “The Freightliner Inspiration Truck is equipped with the Highway Pilot sensors and computer hardware is based upon a series production Freightliner Cascadia Evolution, fully certified to meet all U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The Highway Pilot links together a sophisticated set of camera technology and radar systems with lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking, steering and other monitoring systems. This combination creates a Level 3 autonomous vehicle operating system that can perform safely under a range of highway driving conditions. In total, two trucks with this equipment exist.”
Although the Freightliner isn’t as independently autonomous as the F015, it holds great promise in the context of the challenges facing the trucking industry.
The Freightliner Inspiration is unique and forward-looking, but some have questioned the value of the technology as it does not yet operate without a driver, or switch lanes by itself. Although the Freightliner isn’t as independently autonomous as the F015, it holds great promise in the context of the challenges facing the trucking industry. Driver fatigue is a significant problem for truckers, and although there are regulations on how long they can stay behind the wheel, there are financial incentives for drivers to work long hours and move more goods over more miles.
Altschul says, “The future of autonomous commercial vehicles is the ability to change lanes and sense obstacles. The Freightliner trucks we’re testing in Nevada are already equipped with the safety systems currently in place in our high-end passenger vehicles: Adaptive cruise control, advanced braking assistance, and lane-keeping, all of which can make a big difference for a tired driver.”
Looking past safety, the trucks also boast better fuel economy. Their ability to platoon significantly reduces drag. The technology also helps teach the drivers to operate the vehicle more efficiently, understanding elevation to maximize the fuel savings from driving downhill and coasting—incremental improvements with the potential to meaningfully improve fuel economy.
Daimler’s unveiling of the Freightliner came just a few weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is working on a rule to tighten fuel economy standards for heavy duty trucks. While trucks are only four percent of traffic on the road, they contribute to 20 percent of transportation related fuel consumption. The regulations have seen a generally positive reaction from the trucking community, given the heavy burden of fuel costs on the industry.
The role of public policy
It’s important not to minimize the role of state and federal regulation in the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles. According to Altschul, consumers don’t really realize how connected their cars already are, but in the next two to five years, the public will be more attuned to this issue.
In the meantime, companies like Daimler are concerned about a few specific policy issues including liability, insurance, and avoiding a patchwork of regulations.
“Nobody likes saying something is ‘just an accident,’ which is creating major liability concerns.”
Altschul says, “We live in a litigious society and we want to ensure proper liability mechanisms are in place before bringing passenger vehicles to market. In current testing environments, a driver always needs to be available to step back in. If the car is driving autonomously and a human intervenes and causes an accident—whose fault should it be? Nobody likes saying something is ‘just an accident,’ which is creating major liability concerns.”
Altschul also argues that in Daimler’s view, some states’ current proof of insurance minimums are too low—a common requirement at the state level is a one million dollar insurance policy per company. “We think at least five million dollars is more appropriate because lots of people want to fiddle with autonomous technology and obtain testing permits. We’re not against healthy competition, but the marketplace has to be populated with serious players. Proof of insurance, or surety bond in the amount of at least five million dollars creates a barrier against smaller aftermarket or third party companies who don’t necessarily have the resources or expertise of more established OEMs.” Ultimately, small companies with untested technologies deploying cars and creating accidents could create problems for larger players. If their cars are dangerous or unreliable, accidents could permanently damage public opinion against autonomous vehicles.
Daimler also wants to see state regulations that include provisions for federal preemption—which will sunset as soon as the federal government passes a comprehensive nationwide policy. In other words, states that want to be early leaders should be willing to cede authority to the federal government once a national policy is established, to avoid a patchwork of overlapping or conflicting regulations.
One thing is clear—if supported by the right regulatory framework, autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform how Americans live and work. They can bring safety improvements, efficiency gains, and occur alongside a broader transition towards alternative fuels. With so many potential benefits, Altschul says that in Daimler’s view, autonomous vehicles are “inevitable,” and the company is excitedly moving forward.