The car giant’s new generation of self-driving 18-wheelers have been given permission to roam German roads. CEO Zetsche says the industry is facing a revolution and that he’s looking to team up with Silicon Valley.
German carmaker Daimler has been given the green light to test its futuristic line of self-driving trucks on public roads across its home state Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The move, announced Friday, marks the first time regular motorists could encounter state-sanctioned hands-off drivers on the country’s notorious Autobahn. Technically, though, Daimler’s trucks won’t be entirely autonomous. As an added safety precaution, a chauffeur must be present at all times in case of an emergency.
Explaining the decision, State Transport Minister Winfried Hermann pointed to studies suggesting that driver assistance systems like those used by Daimler could help drastically reduce the risk of accidents on German roads.
“We support this kind of research, which we consider both important and desirable,” Hermann said on Friday.
Earlier this year, Daimler also became the first company in the US to test driverless trucks in regular traffic, after the state of Nevada granted the Stuttgart-based carmaker a fully operational license for two vehicles from its US brand Freightliner Inspiration Trucks.
“We’ve reached a milestone,” Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler Trucks, said at the ceremony in May. Friday’s announcement marks another landmark for the company, bringing it a significant step closer to rolling out its visionary vehicles for commercial use.
The road ahead
But just how close is this futuristic scenario? According to Christoph Hecht of Germany’s largest automobile club ADAC, it’s still little more than a dot on the horizon. “It’s going to take a very long time” until these trucks roam German roads freely, he said.
However, once semi-autonomous trucks are cut loose on regular roads, Hecht predicted that safety would “improve significantly.” That’s because most of the major accidents involving trucks are caused by drivers who are either distracted or, worse yet, fall asleep behind the wheel.
Still, one major roadblock remains, prophesized Hecht. For the automobile expert, the real question is whether the promise of self-driving trucks is enough to win over logistics companies. “The financial incentives for the owners aren’t big enough, because they would still have to pay the driver – regardless of whether their trucks are being driven manually or autonomously,” he reasoned.
As the race to redefine the future of mobility heats up, Daimler’s CEO Dieter Zetsche on Friday told quarterly business magazine Deutsche Unternehmerboerse that the industry was “facing the reinvention of the automobile.”
Lifting the veil on which companies could help the carmaker develop the technology driving its next-generation fleet, the chief executive said he was mulling “different types” of cooperation with Apple and Google.
His comments reflect the industry’s increased focus on autonomous and connected cars, which use Internet access to feed drivers anything from onboard entertainment to nearby restaurant recommendations to emails and information about whether they forgot to turn the lights off at home.
From Stuttgart to Silicon Valley
“Many things are conceivable,” Zetsche said in the interview. “Google and Apple want to provide system software for cars and bring this entire ecosystem around Apple and Google into the vehicle. That can be interesting for both sides.”
Zetsche said this could take the form of a joint venture, with Daimler using the digital expertise of Silicon Valley. However, he insisted that his comments were “purely theoretical,” adding that that he would not allow Daimler to be demoted to the role of dumb supplier.
“We don’t want to become contractors, who have no direct contact with our customers anymore and supply hardware to third parties.”
pad/uhe (dpa, Reuters)