Benz steers along the straight and narrow

By: Steve Brooks


Mercedes-Benz has taken steering technology in the Australian truck market to an entirely new level by tapping into autonomous driving science with a system it calls Active Drive Assist, or simply ADA. While the driver still needs to keep at least a light touch on the wheel, ADA will actively steer the truck in its lane but the system’s only fully effective on the best roads. And as we all know, they’re not everywhere

Benz steers along the straight and narrow
Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz is among those at the global forefront of truck technology

 

Is the rush by truck makers to gain a new or even perceived technological edge over competitors becoming like the battle that once raged for bragging rights in the race for the greatest grunt?

Sometimes, it seems so.

Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the fact that the modern powertrains which today make yesterday’s belching big bangers appear almost feeble in comparison, are simply the latest evolution in an ongoing, and occasionally mind-boggling, explosion in technological triumphs.

Indeed, it’s not stretching the bounds of believability to suggest the last decade has seen more sweeping technology hit the trucking industry than any time in history. Emissions, fuel efficiency, performance and critically, safety, have all been vastly and in most cases, positively enhanced by the application of increasingly advanced technology by the world’s leading brands.

And right now, the global automotive industry is moving ever closer to the most radical advance of all: The rapidly escalating, climate driven departure from fossil-fuelled motive power. There is, of course, much of that story still to be revealed and just as much still to be written but rest assured, with many billions already invested by corporate super-powers, the race to the future is moving at a frenetic pace.

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Meantime, on the Australian stage where almost every technological advance stems from the heavily funded research facilities of overseas suppliers, there’s no doubt some truck and powertrain providers are more active than others in highlighting and offering their technological wares to our market. Likewise, there’s no doubt some operators in the Australian road freight market are more attentive and accepting of modern advances than others.

Each to their own, but whatever the opinion or level of acceptance, nothing will stop the tide of technological advance now pulsing through every element of truck development, performance and efficiency.

Nor should it come as a shock that Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz is among those at the global forefront of truck technology and in Australia, arguably the most active in bringing new developments to our part of the world. Typifying, for instance, the local effort to inform and educate operators and drivers on some of Mercedes-Benz’s latest achievements is a dedicated ‘Truck Training’ unit based on the popular 2653 model.

With a gross combination mass rating of 70 tonnes and a regular runner in everything from linehaul and shorthaul B-doubles, single trailers and truck and dog work, the 2653 is among the most successful and versatile models in Benz’s local line-up. Consequently, it’s also an appropriate platform for training and demonstration duties, sporting the 2.3 metre wide L-cab and with a full-width bench seat along the back wall in place of the bunk, the demo unit is able to accommodate up to four passengers along with the driver.

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Underneath, the standard powertrain sees the responsive 12.8 litre OM471 six cylinder engine pushing its peak outputs of 390kW (530hp) and 2600Nm (1918lb-ft) of torque through the slick PowerShift direct-drive 12-speed automated shifter into a tall 2.733:1 rear axle which, according to Benz’s figures, delivers 100km/h at a twitch over 1400rpm.

In this truck though, there’s far more to mull over than the basic attributes of an exceptionally comfortable cab and a lively powertrain with a solid reputation for frugal fuel consumption. There is, in fact, an extensive stockpile of optional ‘assistance’ features such as the latest version of the digital multi-media dash layout, and predictive powertrain control which uses GPS and topographic information to ‘remember’ a travelled route and accordingly, select the appropriate gear and rev range to maximise performance and fuel efficiency.

On the safety front, there’s also no shortage of assistance with high-tech systems marketed as Lane Keeping Assist, Attention Assist, Active Brake Assist 5, Proximity Control Assist and apparently still looking for a marketing moniker, self-activated cornering lights and high beam that dips automatically.

MirrorCam. It hasn’t set the Australian trucking world alight but the more time spent with it, the easier it is to accept and appreciate, particularly in single trailer roles

Yet perhaps the most intriguing of all the truck’s features from a driver’s perspective are MirrorCam and, as an extension of the Lane Keeping Assist function, the recently added Active Drive Assist (ADA) system. 

Eyes on the future

There has already been plenty written about MirrorCam which is, of course, the digital camera technology replacing conventional side mirrors with unobtrusive cameras mounted high on each side of the cab, relaying images onto tablet-style screens mounted on the A-pillar inside the cab.

As we’ve reported before in several trips behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz trucks fitted with MirrorCam, no one should be surprised that the advanced digital imaging system is now a real option rather than just another piece of prospective wizardry to excite technocrats.

MirrorCam's big benefit is improved vision thanks to an overhead camera replacing big mirror housings

However, as we’ve also commented, ‘there remain question marks surrounding the system’s broad acceptance on the Australian market, and perhaps the greatest drawback is the convex image of MirrorCam’s main screen.

‘Convex mirrors are the norm in the UK and Europe but they’re certainly not the norm here and brief attempts decades ago by one or two continental brands to introduce convex glass were met with derisive dismissal. Consequently, it’s easy to suggest that MirrorCam’s chances of widespread driver and customer acceptance will remain negligible until the main screen provides a flat image.’

Moreover, ‘It’s an issue accentuated by the extra length of a B-double, notably when reversing. According to several sources, some early adopters of the (MirrorCam) system have reverted back to external glass mirrors due in large part to drivers struggling to judge the distance from the rear of the trailer when backing into a dock or the like.’

Active Drive Assist allows drivers to select where they prefer the automated steering system to keep the truck in the lane – more to the left, more to the right or in the centre

Taking the long-term view though, we’ve equally asserted, ‘MirrorCam has too many benefits to ignore its potential as the mirror system of the future. Increased safety through unobstructed side vision and the economic benefits of significantly enhanced aerodynamics and fuel efficiency will almost certainly be the main drivers but in the interim, evolution will need to continue. For our neck of the woods, that’ll require Daimler’s technical gurus in Europe to give more consideration to Australian customers, truck and trailer combinations and critically, drivers.’

All those factors were equally evident during a day behind the wheel of Benz’s ‘Truck Training’ 2653. But even so, with a single trailer attached and on a route that included congested arterial roads, fast freeways and secondary country roads, it became increasingly apparent that MirrorCam’s acceptance is directly relevant to the amount of time spent with the system and perhaps more importantly, a willingness to adapt to an entirely new and different way of looking and judging what’s behind.

Mercedes-Benz’s 2653 Truck Training unit is jam packed with modern technology, with Active Drive Assist the latest and most advanced features

In fact, reversing into a particularly tight spot in a congested service centre on Melbourne’s south-western outskirts, the broad wide-angle view through MirrorCam was actually a significant asset. What’s more, there’s no denying that the absence of Mercedes-Benz’s large mirror housings dramatically enhances the driver’s right-hand view at roundabouts and the like.

Even so, MirrorCam has not set the Australian market alight with delight but again, the system has too many benefits to ignore its ultimate potential as the mirror system of the future. Just when that future will arrive remains anyone’s guess.

But of course, the major attraction of this truck – and indeed, the reason for climbing behind the wheel in the first place – was to spend time with the recently introduced Active Drive Assist option.

So what exactly is ADA, how does it work and what does it cost?

The last question is the easiest to answer: Around $5000!

The other questions aren’t quite so straightforward but fortunately, and despite a predictably positive spin, a comprehensive answer actually comes from a well-crafted press statement from Mercedes-Benz in Australia stating, ‘… the Active Drive Assist technology now enables SAE Level 2 partially automated capability; a first for Australian heavy trucks (and) helps to actively steer the truck and keep it in the centre of its lane, although the driver is still required to hold the steering wheel.’

And that’s the vital point. Unlike the much publicised autonomous driving systems which in European trials have shown the driver to be little more than a passenger, and largely relevant only in emergency situations, ADA requires the man or woman behind the wheel to stay in touch with the steering wheel.

As Mercedes-Benz Trucks Australia director, Andrew Assimo explains, Level 2 automation requires drivers to hold the steering wheel at all times and must be prepared to take over at any stage.

But if that’s the case, what is the system’s benefit if the driver still maintains control over where the truck’s pointed?

Full of technology and modern features but the Mercedes-Benz interior remains entirely functional and comfortable

"Level 2 automation makes life easier for drivers and boosts safety by helping reduce fatigue," Assimo insists. He further asserts that after a successful 1.2 million kilometre validation program that included 15 trucks in Australia and five in New Zealand, "The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from drivers who can really appreciate the benefits of the system after experiencing it first-hand."

Again though, he emphasises, "This is a driver assistance feature, not a driver replacement feature."

Even so, Mercedes-Benz maintains that ADA, ‘… is one step ahead of some current systems (because) it actually helps to steer the truck in the first place and aims to prevent it getting out to the edge of the lane.

‘The Lane Keeping Assist system is proactive rather than reactive (and) it does this by using cameras to monitor lane markings and uses that data to help operate the electro-hydraulic steering system.’

Importantly, Benz’s statement adds, ‘The driver can overrule Lane Keeping Assist at any time and is able to turn off the system.’

Furthermore, and like other electro-hydraulic systems, ‘Active Drive Assist uses an electric motor on the steering box to provide assistance in addition to the standard hydraulic power steering (to) not only help keep the truck in the lane, but also provide more assistance to the driver and improve manoeuvrability, especially at lower speeds.’

In the real world

It was mid-morning by the time I climbed behind the wheel and pointed the 2653 demonstrator out of the Velocity Daimler Trucks dealership at Laverton (Vic), with Mercedes-Benz’s experienced training associate Rob Young in the passenger seat to answer any queries on the operation of the various ‘assistance’ systems.

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The original plan was simple enough: Head towards Ballarat along the rolling dual carriageway of the Western Freeway where the Active Drive Assist system could be showcased in its ideal element on a well-marked road, and head back the same way. But such was the system’s obvious merit on the outward journey on a good highway, it was decided to take a different return route to gauge its effectiveness on the far more diverse road conditions between Ballarat and Geelong.

On the Western Freeway, ADA’s lane-keeping performance was extraordinary and while Mercedes-Benz insists the driver needs to keep a hand on the wheel, the temptation was too great to tentatively let go of the wheel completely. And sure enough, running on cruise control in conjunction with the Proximity Control function, and within clearly defined lane markings, the system’s ability to actively steer the truck through curves and adjust to different road cambers was nothing short of remarkable.

Simply put, in these well-marked highway lanes, the technology works just as Mercedes-Benz says it will.

Equally though, the absence of any steering input from the driver for more than 15 seconds brings on the first of a series of warning functions in the form of a prominent warning light in the centre of the digital dash. After 30 seconds, the light is joined by an audible warning and if there’s still no input from the driver after 60 seconds, Mercedes-Benz says the system will automatically switch to a passive mode which deactivates the system. While a rocker switch on the dash fascia engages and disengages the lane keeping functions, if the system automatically deactivates three times, it can only be reactivated by turning the ignition off and on again.

"This is a driver assistance feature, not a driver replacement feature," says Mercedes-Benz Trucks Australia director, Andrew Assimo

As Mercedes-Benz further explains, Active Drive Assist is the combination of two sub-systems – a typical lane keeping function which works to keep the vehicle within lane markings, and a significantly more advanced lane departure protection system which automatically steers the vehicle back into its lane if it drifts out.

What’s more, the system can be adjusted to favour a preferred place in the lane – more to the left, more to the right, or stay in the centre. The adjustments are made by a toggle on the arm of the steering wheel and the position highlighted on the digital dash screen.

As with most modern operational systems, familiarity with the various control functions takes time but there’s no denying, it’s all highly impressive technology.

Meantime, turning off the Western Freeway and with cruise control disengaged on the regional roads leading to Geelong’s outer limits, ADA’s attributes were increasingly less evident as lane and road edge markings became intermittent and even completely absent.


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Yet even without the lane keeping technology, there’s also no denying that like all the electro-hydraulic steering systems now available in several European cab-over brands, Mercedes-Benz’s modern steering and road handling qualities are an unequivocal asset on any road, but most noticeably on battered surfaces and rough edges.

Overall, it’s easy to conclude that the hi-tech systems which make Active Drive Assist possible are extremely advanced and likewise, extremely effective on major highways where lane markings are consistent and easily ‘observed’ by the camera technology which feeds data to the on-board electronics.

Simply put, ADA is largely the inevitable extension of the lane-keeping and lane departure warning systems becoming ever more prevalent in modern trucks. In operational terms, its greatest advantage is obviously on well-marked highways and likewise, its greatest asset is in safeguarding against those rare and perhaps inevitable occasions when a few moments of driver inattention, tiredness or distraction can lead to a truck veering out of its lane with potentially ugly consequences.

Whether truck buyers see the $5000 price tag as a worthwhile option, well, again it’s a case of ‘each to their own’. Some will see value in the potential in minimising risk. Others won’t.

One thing’s certain though. The march of technology is in full stride and Mercedes-Benz isn’t planning on losing its pace at the head of the column.

 

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