The latest technology to become available in the already-packed-with-tech Mercedes Benz is a system ensuring drivers are keeping active at the wheel and keeps the truck in the middle of the lane.
The level of safety technology fitted into the latest trucks seems to take a step change every year. PowerTorque test drives the latest addition to the Mercedes Benz Safety Suite.
It is hard to work out whether the exponential growth in the use of very sophisticated electronic safety aids has grown because there has been an increase in the trucking industry’s focus on safety, or whether the boom in this kind of electronics, in all aspects of life has made the kind of systems we are now seeing cheaper and more achievable.
The answer is probably somewhere in between. Every improvement in safety outcomes inspires the designers to go one step further. Large corporate road transport customers who have their brands splashed across trailers delivering to them, don’t want their brand associated with dangerous behaviour. At the same time, the ubiquitous nature and diminishing size of high powered computing capacity is now cheap enough to fit into any device or vehicle.
That is not to say any of this equipment comes cheap, it does not, but the whole raft of high tech is much more accessible, these days.
The latest step onto the Australian truck market comes in the form of yet another optional extra available on Mercedes Benz trucks. Just as we have become used to adaptive cruise, lane keeping, autonomous braking et al, the latest advance is called Active Drive Assist.
This is the next step in the long and winding road the truck makers are heading down towards the final goal, well over the horizon, of a fully autonomous truck. We already have technology to keep us at a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and which will jam on the brakes when we are about to hit something.
Now, the technology which will keep the truck on the straight and narrow, going in the right direction and staying in its lane, has arrived. This takes the lane keeping technology one step further, it doesn’t just give us a warning, it steers the truck back into the lane.
The video camera on the windscreen watches the lines on the road and if it senses that the truck has drifted from its position in the lane, it will intervene with the steering to get it back into position. The system uses a form of dynamic steering, which has also been seen on Volvo and Scania, but instead of trying to enhance the driver inputs to the wheel, it also actively moved the wheel to keep in the lane.
It was with some trepidation that I climbed up into the cabin of this Actros 26530LS to see just what this technology looked and felt like. Settling into the seat the driver is confronted with what looks like two large iPads on the dashboard, one directly in front of the driver and the other over to their left.
Another screen, the size of giant mobile phone is fixed to the A pillar, this is the screen for the mirrorcam. In place of the mirrors, outside there is a stubby protrusion where the rear-facing camera lives.
So far, so good. The key fob is in the cabin, so you push the start button and fire up the engine. Then it is a matter of engaging auto on the transmission and releasing the electronic handbrake, if you feel like it. The parking brake releases automatically if you actively get the truck in gear and hit the accelerator.
Once you are comfortable out on the road and engage the active cruise, it is then that the new tech on the steering becomes noticeable. Instead of a steering wheel which sits benignly under the driver’s hand, the wheel is sending feedback and making gentle moves a lot of the time.
This wheel feel can be a little unnerving at the start, it feels like that awkward moment when the steer tyres drop into tramlines in the bitumen and take the truck off course. There is a reflex action, to begin with, to try and correct the movement.
After a while it is possible to suppress that reflexive movement and convince your hands that it is the truck taking a little bit of control of the steering and it is not veering off course.