I just finished a drive into the future. And it was pretty uneventful. I mean that in the most positive sense possible.
Last week, Freightliner unveiled both an $80 million SuperTruck it previewed at the Mid-America Trucking Show and the never-before-seen Inspiration, the first road-legal autonomous rig. And I was able to take a short circuit behind the wheel and in the passenger seat of these futuristic trucks, skirting the perimeter of the wind-swept Las Vegas Motor Speedway today.
Between the high-tech trucks on the road and the U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers roaring overhead, it was a pretty dramatic scene.
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But fun and educational.
Before I got the chance to climb behind the SuperTruck’s wheel, I rode shotgun in the company’s new Inspiration Truck, which was unveiled last night at a dramatic show at historic Hoover Dam.
The Inspiration is, of course, the first fully licensed/road-legalautonomous truck in North America. But in the cab, the vibe was more familiar than futuristic. Aside from some very high-tech instrumentation and information centers, the truck feels very comfortable and similar to any luxury-spec’d Cascadia on the road today.
I wasn’t able to take the wheel, because the state of Nevada requires an autonomous vehicle CDL endorsement first, but the ride was enlightening just the same. Our driver, Freightliner technical engineer Jim Martin, demonstrated the autonomous drive function on a stretch of I-15 running past the speedway.
And it performed exactly as advertised. When in autonomous mode, the truck drove smoothly and safely. And apart from the fact that the steering wheel was swirling around on its own without any human input, the feel was very much the same as having a human in control.
Of course, an actual human driver must be behind the wheel at all times in a Level 3 autonomous vehicle such as the Inspiration Truck. And Martin showed how easy it was to switch between driver and autonomous control—it’s easy as flipping on cruise control or simply reaching out and grabbing ahold of the steering wheel.
The system is intuitive and appears to work seamlessly. Martin noted that drivers can drive as much—or as little—as they prefer behind the wheel, noting that the system works to help alleviate fatigue by allowing drivers to cede control of the truck to the truck for long periods of time.
A super fun drive in a SuperTruck
Approaching the Freightliner SuperTruck up close for the first time, I was struck by how sleek this vehicle is. Nothing juts out into the windstream. Even the door handles are tucked away underneath the door panels to maintain the high aerodynamic efficiency offered by this advanced design.
Behind the wheel I was faced with more high-tech instrument graphics presented in a decidedly Old School style: Large, round gauges inhabit the driver cluster. The center console cluster is more modern, with an advanced driver information system and screen dedicated solely to the hybrid drive system performance.
Views over the nose are insanely good. The hood slope is so dramatic, you have to strain your neck to catch even a glimpse of it.
Views to the side are equally good. However, this is one area where the SuperTruck has outpaced current highway laws. In its test form, the truck relies on aerodynamic rearview cameras. But these systems are not yet road legal. So my test vehicle was equipped with limited-view mirrors supplemented by rearview monitors inside the cab.
Vehicle launch was surprisingly smooth in a way that only a hybrid drivetrain can deliver. The SuperTruck’s 11-liter diesel engine only produces 375 horsepower. But any expected lack of low-end grunt is more than offset by the powerful electric motor. You feel the low horsepower a bit when accelerating up a graded on-ramp. But let’s be honest: If big-bore horsepower and single-digit MPG is your passion, you probably stopped reading this article a couple of paragraphs ago.
The truck drives great with excellent throttle and steering response and all the controls are more familiar than futuristic. Sitting in the passenger seat overseeing the test drive was Freightliner engineering technician Jason Gray, who told me that all the futuristic features aside, at the end of the day, SuperTruck drives and handles like a really well-engineered truck.
And he’s right.
Freightliner likes to say the SuperTruck is more of an evolution than a revolution, and my time behind the wheel reflected that sentiment.
The wind was really blowing hard out in the desert. But even a heavy crosswind didn’t rattle the SuperTruck on my drive. The truck is so aerodynamically clean that the wind barely registers at all from the driver’s seat. This sleek profile has other advantages as well: Between the advanced drivetrain and the super-sleek design, this has to be the quietest cab interior I’ve ever experienced.
SuperTruck was a blast to drive, and not just because of the quizzical looks I got from truckers on I-15. It’s a shame this exact truck won’t go into production because it looks so distinct and handles so well. And yet, before my drive was over, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be behind the wheel of a SuperTruck with Level 3 autonomous vehicle control.
And I’m pretty sure we won’t have to wait long to find the answer to that question.