RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Imagine you're on the highway, and you glance into the cab of the 18-wheeler next you, and there's no one there. That day may be coming. And this past week, Freightliner, owned by automaker Daimler, unveiled the truck that drives itself. It's called the Inspiration. Alex Davies is an associate editor for Wired. He was at that event, and he got to take a ride in this big rig. He joins me now from San Francisco. Hey, Alex. How's it going?
ALEX DAVIES: Going well. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You bet. So you got to take a ride in this big rig that's supposed to just drive itself? I mean, you're a brave man.
DAVIES: So driverless is a term that no automaker will ever use or allow you to use without them correcting you.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.
DAVIES: They prefer the term autonomous or specifically, in this situation, they say piloted. You still have a driver in the driver seat, and he's there ready to take over at all times in case something goes wrong...
DAVIES: ...Or the system encounters a situation it's not really well-prepared for. So the driver is there. He hits a mode called highway autopilot. And then from there on, the truck will stay in its lane, maintain its speed and a safe distance from other vehicles. But you still need to be in the seat ready to take over.
MARTIN: This new capability, I mean, it's a whole different level of sensitivity - staying in the lane and determining distance from other cars.
DAVIES: It is. And actually the big difference here is the ability to pick up lane lines with a camera. And not just alert the driver when he's drifting out of his lane but to make sure that the truck stays in there. So to do that, they had to make a couple of hardware tweaks - things like adding in what's called an actuator which is a little mechanical bit that allows the computer to actually tap into the steering system to control it. And when you're sitting in the cab of the truck, the freakiest part is watching the wheel turn its his own as the truck stays in its lane, and you know, on slight curves on the road and even heavy crosswinds. And we were driving around outside Las Vegas, so you get some pretty big crosswinds. And the truck is doing those little things that you do to make sure you're staying right in the center between those lines.
MARTIN: So this idea of making sure that the truck stays in between the lines in case a driver were to doze off - that's a real concern in this community, right? Like, truck drivers are often driving such long distances. Is this a change that truck drivers are welcoming?
DAVIES: For right now, there's no threat at all to driver's careers. And Daimler will be the first to say so. They say, no, you still need a driver in the driver seat. First of all, just to handle surface street driving. This is a system that only works on the highway. And you could take the driver out, but then the truck would just endlessly drive down the highway, and it would be, effectively, useless.
MARTIN: Is this a change that is definitely going to happen? You said this is still in a prototype, right?
DAVIES: Daimler is very cautious to say this is a system it doesn't think will be market ready for about a decade. That said, this is happening. This has already been happening for about 20 years, and you have all kinds of building block systems that are leading us toward autonomy.
MARTIN: Alex Davies is an associate editor for Wired.
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