Daimler's self-driving 18-wheelers ready to take to the autobahn

Don't worry though - these rigs still have a human driver onboard.

Daimler's self-driving Future Truck.
Daimler's self-driving Future Truck. Image: Daimler
Daimler's autonomous 'Future Truck' will soon be driving itself into real traffic in Germany. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure in Stuttgart, Germany has given the company permission to bring its autonomous 18-wheelers onto the motorways in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

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The move is part of Daimler's to bring autonomous driving technology to the freight and logistics business within the next ten years. The company showcased its Future Truck 2025 at the International Commercial Vehicle Show last year, touting the self-driving trucks as the natural extension of the many driver assistance systems it has been developing in recent years.

"This truck provides compelling answers to the challenges that our customers will be facing in the future. Our aim therefore is to press forward with readying this technology for the market and to bring it to series-production standard," Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler board member for trucks and buses, said at the time.

The Future Truck uses a combination of assistance systems to drive itself. Sensors, cameras, and steering intervention keep the truck automatically in the middle of its lane. The system also includes a three-dimensional digital map, so that the truck is aware of the route and topography ahead at all times. The Future Truck can also communicate with other connected vehicles to exchange information.

Daimler is also working on a new technology called 'Blind Spot Assist' which uses radar sensors to monitor the sides of the truck and alert the driver to the presence of other cars or trucks that might not be immediately visible.

"We will be the first to bring this technology to the market. The reason for this is as simple as it is convincing: our ultimate aim is to make truck driving accident-free," Bernhard said.

Many autonomous vehicle proponents argue that the technology will dramatically improve safety on the highways. While the Future Truck can drive itself, a driver will remain in the cab and can take control of the vehicle at any time if necessary. According to Daimler's own studies, driver drowsiness decreases by about 25 percent when the truck is in autonomous mode, and the autonomous features mean the driver can do other things, such as plan future routes and stops on a tablet.

The German government appears eager to promote the development these technologies, and earlier this year, the federal Ministry of Transport designated a section of the autobahn in Bavaria to be digitised so that new connected and self-driving vehicles can be tested in real traffic.

This latest move will be the first time self-driving trucks will be allowed in everyday traffic in Germany, but it's not the first time they've been on the road. The trucks were first tested on a closed section of the A14 motorway in Magdeburg, Germany in July 2014.

Then, the autonomous trucks hit open road in Nevada in May, giving Daimler the distinction of being the first car marker in the world to have a road license for an autonomous heavy-duty truck. Two Freightliner 'Inspiration Trucks', similar to the Future Truck but configured for US driving, have been approved to drive on Nevada's public roads.

While companies such as Google, Tesla, and German car makers like Daimler's Mercedes Benz brand are already working on self-driving cars, Daimler appears to be ahead of the curve when it comes to autonomous trucks.

However, there is at least one other company making some inroads into the self-driving truck field. Pennsylvania-based Royal Truck and Equipment is launching a driverless truck for use on construction sites, doing the particularly dangerous job of marking off work zones on highways. Unlike Daimler's version, Royal plans to test its autonomous truck without a human driver.

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