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Daimler Demonstrates a Self-Driving Truck

MAGDEBURG, Germany — For Daimler, the truck driver of the future looks something like this: He is seated in the cab of a semi, eyes on a tablet and hands resting in his lap.

Daimler demonstrated its vision Thursday along a stretch of the A14 autobahn near Magdeburg in eastern Germany, the culmination of years of innovation. It says the vehicle — called the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, a nod to the year the carmaker hopes it will be introduced — is capable of responding to traffic while driving completely autonomously down a freeway at speeds of up to 85 kilometers per hour, or 52 miles per hour.

“The Future Truck 2025 leads to more efficiency, and better safety and connectivity,” said Wolfgang Bernhard, the head of Daimler Trucks. “This in turn results in a more sustainable transport system to the benefit of the economy, society and consumers.”

Only one prototype of Future Truck 2025 exists, and the company declined to reveal for how much the vehicle would sell. Regulatory and legal challenges also remain before the truck would be allowed to take to the road.

No figures are available for commercial vehicles, but analysts with IHS Automotive predicted in a research note that adding self-driving technology to personal cars, which more manufacturers are exploring, would increase the cost of vehicles by about $10,000 by 2020.

Along an eight-lane stretch of the autobahn, the large silver truck of the future fell into line with 20 other vehicles used to simulate realistic driving conditions. The truck responded to slowing cars in its lane by adjusting its speed accordingly and registered an approaching emergency vehicle in time to slide effortlessly into the far-right lane, allowing the emergency vehicle to pass on the left.

Unlike the pod-shape, two-seat driverless vehicle introduced recently by Google, the Daimler truck retains a steering wheel as a safety measure. This allows a driver to intervene for critical maneuvers, like overtaking a slower-moving vehicle in the left lane, much in the same way as the pilot of an airliner can intervene to guide an aircraft set on autopilot. The Google car is focused on urban transport and specializes in traveling short distances on demand for individual passengers.

Volvo, the Swedish manufacturer, has been developing driverless vehicles as part of the European Union’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment program, which envisions creating a caravan of vehicles that follow a leader in an effort to reduce wind-drag and fuel costs. Only the vehicles following the leader, which is in the hands of a driver, are able to function autonomously.

Future Truck 2025 builds on technology Daimler has already used in its sedans. Last year, Daimler introduced the Mercedes-Benz 2014 S-Class, which retains a human behind a steering wheel but shares many of the same sensor systems and data communication platforms with the Future Truck, the company said.

But the experience of guiding a self-driving truck is far less stressful than the vigilance required from a human to respond to traffic conditions. This means that drivers could have enough free time to speak with their families or employers, take care of paperwork or make travel plans like booking a slot at a rest stop or making arrangements for future load.

“It’s strange at first,” said Hans Luft, who sat in the truck’s cab during the demonstration on Thursday. He waved his hands to show observers that he did not need them on the wheel, tapping at his tablet while taking advantage of the 45-degree swivel of his driver’s seat. “But you quickly learn to trust it and then it’s great.”

The driver still needs to start the vehicle and enter the flow of traffic. But once the Future Truck reaches 80 k.p.h., or 50 m.p.h., a prompt in the system asks the driver to activate what is called the Highway Pilot, which effectively takes over.

Equipped with sensors in the front that have ranges of 70 to 250 meters, or 77 to 273 yards, and cameras capable of capturing images in more than one direction, the Future Truck can identify single- and double-lane roads, pedestrians and objects — moving or stationary — and respond to them.

Analysts say there remain hurdles for self-driving vehicles, like liability and cyber security issues, along with data quality and privacy.

“The deployment of autonomous vehicles today is less about technological capabilities and more about the ability of stakeholders to handle the various commercial and governance complexities associated with having such vehicles on the road,” said Ernst and Young in a research note.

At this point, the technology requires clear and consistent road markings that can be easily detected by the sensors. And laws in Europe requiring drivers to keep their eyes on the road would have to be changed. Regulations governing international truck travel and the use of data collected by the truck’s systems have to be adapted.

Manufacturers will also have to ensure that their vehicles will be able to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles across borders.

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