Normally when the subject of autonomous vehicles comes up, the conversation jumps to passenger cars. That is a bit odd when you consider what vehicles actually spend the most time on highways: trucks. But Mercedes-Benz is already working on that, and have recently begun testing an autonomous truck.
The “Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025” just completed its first driverless tests on the A14 Autobahn outside of Magdeburg, reaching the blistering speed of 53 mph (85 kph). Despite badly needing a more exciting name, the autonomous truck is an impressive feat.
The technology of the Future Truck comes primarily from Mercedes road car division and includes radar, optical and GPS systems that are able to control the truck in realistic highway driving. Mercedes is as excited as Germans ever get outside of a futbol match.
“The truck of the future is a Mercedes-Benz that drives itself,” said Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, member of Daimler’s board and dictionary illustration of a German executive. “The Future Truck 2025 is our response to the major challenges and opportunities associated with road freight transport in the future.”
According to Mercedes cargo transport on Germany’s autobahns will expand by more than half over the next forty years without a commensurate growth of the transport network. This means that transport has to grow more efficient.
Mercedes hopes that driverless trucks can be part of a more efficient and safer transport scheme, that can deal with a crowded future. An automated truck should be able to use space more efficiently, and manage fuel better than human drivers. Better still, the possibility of networked trucks would allow efficient convoying and closer following distances.
This efficiency also has benefits for the environment, especially in the form of reduced fuel consumption.
The main loser in this would be truck drivers. However, Mercedes does not envision the death of this profession, but rather changing into something a bit different.
Truckers would still be needed, at least in the foreseeable future, to take over in cities or if something went wrong with the automated programming. But what to do with all that freetime on the highway? Well Mercedes envisions trucks becoming mobile offices, and truck drivers taking on rolls traditionally held by office workers in the shipping industry.
It’s an interesting idea, and probably a good one. But as with all automation, efficiency usually means fewer humans needed.
But regardless of petty human concerns automated trucks are already on their way. The U.S. military is working on using them in dangerous convoy situations, and the Dutch are already working on updating the law to allow autonomous trucks for use in around port facilities. The Future Truck could be here much sooner than even Mercedes is willing to predict.