When people hear the term "autonomous truck," they might think of Optimus Prime. They probably don't think of Daimler's (OTC:DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz brand, which is usually associated with luxury sedans. Yet Mercedes is looking to turn that perception upside down with an ambitious plan to put self-driving trucks on roads over in just over a decade.
In a recent live demonstration, Mercedes-Benz showed off its self-driving "Future Truck 2025" (a modified Mercedes-Benz Actros 1845) cruising along at a maximum speed of 53 mph on Germany's Autobahn.
The vehicle is powered by a system known as the Highway Pilot, which uses a combination of vehicle-to-vehicle Wi-Fi communication, radars on both sides of the truck, and a short-range radar on the back of the truck. A front-facing, depth-detecting stereo camera is mounted under the windshield. A human driver can switch from manual control to the Highway Pilot, just as a pilot switches a plane over to autopilot, and ride hands-free.
Daimler doesn't expect the truck to hit the market until 2025, when laws will hopefully be fully amended for autonomous vehicles. The "Future Truck" isn't Mercedes-Benz's only self-driving concept vehicle. In May, it also showcased a self-driving S500 sedan powered by Nokia's HERE Maps.
Are self-driving cars really the future?
Daimler isn't alone in its quest to populate the world's roads with autonomous vehicles.
Toyota, Volkswagen's (OTC:VWAGY) Audi, and Chinese automaker FAW all demonstrated similar technologies last year. Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY) demonstrated a self-driving version of its popular EV, the Leaf, during its Nissan 360 event last August in California.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) also recently declared that 100 of its driverless, all-electric two-seater vehicles would hit public roads next year. Meanwhile, a tiny start-up, Cruise, recently started accepting pre-orders for a $10,000 kit that converts newer Audi vehicles into self-driving ones -- as long as they remain within the San Francisco area.
In the U.S., self-driving cars are legal in California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C. But legislation is only half of the problem. Google's self-driving cars, for example, can't simply drive down any road with a Google Maps Street View. Instead, Google has to map out a more detailed view consisting of the heights of curbs, street signs, and possible hazards. Google has mapped roughly 2,000 miles of road this way, but that's a baby step considering that California alone has 170,000 miles of roads.
But what about trucks?
Launching self-driving trucks, however, could have much deeper economic implications than regular passenger vehicles.
There is currently a shortage of truck drivers in Daimler's home country Germany. The job isn't a popular one among younger workers, which has forced trucking companies to raise wages to attract more drivers. But salaries are still unattractive -- a German truck driver earns roughly the same as his or her American counterpart, with an annual salary of roughly $38,000 to $40,000.
When those higher wages are combined with rising diesel costs, German trucking companies are forced to pass the costs onto their customers. To top off all those problems, car parts supplier ZF Friedrichshafen estimates that 40% of all German truckers will retire within the next decade.
The U.S. trucking industry, which employs 3.5 million drivers, faces the exact same problems as the German one. As a result, the U.S. government projects the current shortage of 25,000 truck drivers to skyrocket to 330,000 by 2020. This means that even if self-driving trucks were allowed to drive on their own across state lines without human drivers, they would merely complement, not replace, the existing workforce.
Moreover, self-driving trucks, just like driverless trains, will still likely require operators on board to manually override the controls in case of emergencies.
Smarter highways for the future
Looking ahead farther into the future, if self-driving trucks become fully electric, they could be fully recharged between shipping stations, saving millions of dollars in diesel costs. Trucks would also fully evolve into "road trains" cruising along smart roads, eliminating the risk of collisions with passenger vehicles.
That future isn't as far off as most people may think. In November 2015, the European Union will require all new trucks over 3.5 tons to be equipped with advanced emergency braking systems (AEBS) and lane departure warning systems (LDWS). AEBS uses sensors to warn of obstacles ahead, and if the driver fails to respond, it automatically triggers a braking response. LDWS alerts the driver when the truck begins drifting out of the lane.
Both initiatives are considered the first steps to realize a vision of fully autonomous convoys of trucks cruising along thousands of miles of "smart" highways.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, self-driving trucks like Mercedes' "Future Truck 2025" demonstrate that self-driving cars are much more than gimmicks, and far closer to reality than most people think. Not only will self-driving trucks help fill the soaring need for truck drivers, they could also result in improved safety and much lower shipping costs over the next few decades.