Pulling myself up into the cab of the big 18-wheeler, I settle into the shotgun seat and buckle up while driver Mark Alvick fires up the Freightliner semi. With a groan, the airbrakes release, the big diesel rumbles to life and we head off down the highway.
It takes a fair bit of muscle to manage a heavy truck like this, but after a couple moments, Alvick taps a switch on the sprawling instrument console and settles back, both hands off the steering wheel. A brief moment of panic quickly subsides as the truck maintains its rock-steady grip on the road, smoothly negotiating a sweeping curve on the 2-lane blacktop north of Las Vegas.
This isn’t a normal 18-wheeler. It’s the prototype Freightliner Inspiration, the world’s first autonomous heavy truck licensed for use on public roads. The company, the country’s largest manufacturer of heavy trucks, plans several years of tests and, working with its many customers, hopes to commercialize this self-driving technology by decade’s end.