The parent company of Mercedes-Benz trucks, Daimler, believes that non-road applications could be the way forward in refining autonomous driving technology.
New, simplified versions of current driverless technology could make it easier to gain public acceptance, says the company, which is planning to demonstrate its capabilities by introducing self-driving snow plough and snow blowing trucks at German airports by the end of the current decade.
The 25-tonne, bright orange lorries are unique in the world of self-driving vehicles because they are automated rather than autonomous. This means they take a predefined route rather than making split-second decisions on direction through the use of sensors.
“We don’t need artificial intelligence, we don’t need the latest technology,” said Philipp Dreyer, Head of Product Management for Daimler. “It’s not so much autonomous in the sense of watching the surroundings and making decisions, it’s more a predefined lane that is basically stored, digitally, in the vehicle.”
The technology is simpler than that in fully autonomous vehicles, which use a combination of camera and radar systems to interact with other road users. The proposed technology uses pre-plotted co-ordinates, similar to autonomous systems already demonstrated in farming machinery.
Daimler demonstrated the technology for the first time earlier this week at a private airport just outside Frankfurt, with a convoy of four vehicles falling into formation and using a series of ploughs and brushes to simulate clearing a snow-covered runway.
The project was commissioned by Frankfurt Airport, whose “winter services” of de-icing aircraft and clearing runways are projected to cost €23m this year. Implementing the technology would save airports form having to have specialist drivers on standby, being fully paid, when it doesn’t snow.