Test Drive

Life in (the middle of) the fast lane with new Actros

The list of ‘firsts’ in safety and technology from Mercedes-Benz is far too long to list here but it’s safe to say that the company has always been at the forefront in these aspects. What they produce on their cars also quickly filters through to the truck division. And so it is with my recent drive of the latest Mercedes-Benz Actros with its level 2 automation – a first in Australia.

Many of you would be familiar with Lane Departure Warning which lets you know – usually very loudly – when you’ve drifted over the white line. Some would also have experienced Lane Keeping Assist which will actively push the truck back into the lane if you drift over those lane markings.

But none of you have experienced M-B’s latest and greatest: Active Drive Assist (ADA) technology.

My experience is in an Actros which does the lane departure warning thing and will push you back into the lane if you drift, BUT it also keeps you in the middle of the lane – slap-bang between the white lines. Together with Active Radar Cruise Control, this truck steers itself – well almost.

I say almost because the truck becomes distinctly unhappy if you take your hands off the wheel for more than 60 seconds. And it lets you know it!

Let us start at the beginning. I meet up with the truck on a rainy Melbourne day that is obviously in sympathy with the downpours happening in New South Wales and Queensland. A quick lesson in what’s-where from my ‘tour guide’, M-B’s Noel Griffiths and we’re ready for a run up to Ballarat.

Press the start button and the high-resolution multimedia interface screen and dash tablets light up like a Christmas tree. The dash offers various displays to suit your taste and the MMI screen is super easy to scroll through and use.

This truck is a training vehicle with the bunk replaced by a bench seat. I commented on the nice interior and Griffiths informs me this is the base vehicle with ADA and MirrorCam optioned. For a ‘poverty pack’, it looks pretty classy to me.

MirrorCam automatically pans so the driver can always see the end of the trailer(s).

I shift into drive without having to put my foot on the brake. There’s no need to disengage the electronic park brake either.

A ‘Hold’ sign comes up on the dash. Even though my foot is off the brake pedal the truck knows that I haven’t started driving so keeps some air pressure in the system. As soon as I push the accelerator the brakes releases, the ‘Hold’ sign disappears and we move away.

Having to negotiate a sharp corner I’m reminded how much I love MirrorCam which automatically pans so that I can always see the end of the trailer/s, no matter how big the angle.

Around the corner and I stop at a set of lights. A firm push on the brake pedal, the “Hold’ sign reappears and I can move my foot to the accelerator, ready for that extra-fast-start. Moving again and out on the open road, I set the Cruise Control to 100km/h and let the Actros work its way up to that speed.

The truck is now set on proximity control so that it maintains a predetermined distance from vehicles in front of it. The dash shows a grey grid in its centre which turns blue if it detects a vehicle ahead that is in range.

Along with this is a steering wheel icon on the dash – also blue to let me know that ADA is also engaged. The blue wheel icon lets me know that the truck has picked up the lane markings. ADA helps to actively steer the truck and keep it in the centre of its lane, although I’m still required to hold the steering wheel.

To activate the ADA you just press the button on the screen.

It is one step ahead of some current systems that can push a truck back into the lane should it wander out. The Lane Keeping Assist system is proactive rather than reactive.

It does this by using cameras to monitor lane markings, and uses that data to help operate the electro-hydraulic steering system. The driver can overrule Lane Keeping Assist at any time and is able to turn off the system.

ADA uses an electric motor located on the steering box to provide assistance in addition to the standard hydraulic power steering.

It not only helps keep the truck in the lane, but also provides more assistance to the driver and improving manoeuvrability, especially at lower speeds.

The system is adjustable, in that certain conditions may demand you need to be closer to the left of the lane or vice-versa. An example would be when hauling a wide load where you need to stay further left.

Once we are on proximity control, as soon as the truck sees the lines and it’s happy, it says it can maintain the position within the lane automatically with ADA.

Whilst the truck is steering itself, the system picks up minute movements I’m inputting to the steering wheel. Take your hands off the wheel and the truck knows it. In 30-seconds it clearly lets you know to put them back on.

After 60 seconds it decides that something is wrong and reacts accordingly. Whilst keeping in lane it will apply the brakes, gradually coming to a standstill, activate the hazard warning lights and unlock the doors.

The Actros will stay within the lane all the way to wherever you are going – whilst there are lane markings of course.

On this very wet day, only once did the system have to let me know that it couldn’t read one of the white lines which was well under water. I can’t see the lane markings either so I can’t blame the Actros.

There is a picture of the steering wheel and hands on the touchscreen. I turn it off so the truck is now under my control. There is no longer Active Drive Assist (ADA) and I can feel the weights change on the wheel.

If I started drifting now, I’ll still get an audible warning through the left or right and speakers to warn me that I drifted, and it will steer me back into the lane.

This is Lane Departure which is always active (but can be turned off as well). With ADA turned off the Actros steers beautifully and I always know where the wheels are pointing. It’s one of the best in the business – but hey, this is hard work when the Actros can do it all for you.

One can only imagine what level 3, 4 and 5 autonomy will offer the driver when that comes on the market.

This is level 2 autonomy and will be followed in short order by levels 3, 4 and 5. One can only imagine what they will bring.

The Actros’ stop-and-go assist ostensibly means I could drive from one side of Melbourne to the other without touching the brake.

If the traffic starts slowing down, then so will you until you come to a complete stop. If the traffic moves away within two seconds the truck automatically moves away with it.

Longer than two seconds and you have to remind the truck by touching the accelerator briefly, or pressing resume on the cruise control when the vehicle in front moves. Such a chore!

How does the system feel?

Strange for the first few minutes, knowing that the wheel has a life of its own. But it quickly feels quite natural. After the Actros I jumped into another truck and gee did I miss the ADA.

There’ll be those who denigrate this technology, claiming that no-one can drive a truck like a bloke in ‘full’ control.

All I can say is don’t knock it if you aint tried it. Along with my beloved MirrorCam, this truck is simply next level.

And if you happen to fall asleep at the wheel or worse, had a heart attack, you’re not going to miss the next bend and hit a tree or an oncoming vehicle, because this truck will save your life, possibly someone else’s, your truck and your load. Then you will be a convert.

Impressive technology indeed!

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