Daimler tests self-driving truck with Mercedes S class technology, sets production goal

Wolfgang Bernhard, head of the Daimler Trucks division: “We don't only talk about innovation, we implement it to underline our leadership position.”

Photo credit: DAIMLER
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MAGDEBURG, Germany (Bloomberg) -- Daimler is working to introduce trucks that steer, brake and accelerate independently as early as 2025 as the world’s commercial-vehicle industry leader seeks to keep an innovative edge over competitors.

The self-driving technology, adapted from features already available on Daimler’s new Mercedes-Benz S-class luxury sedan, enabled a prototype based on the company’s Actros truck to travel by itself down a stretch of superhighway on Thursday while the driver kept his arms crossed, waved or used a tablet computer.

“We aim to be the No. 1 manufacturer in this market of the future, which we believe will offer solid revenue and earnings potential,” Wolfgang Bernhard, head of the Daimler Trucks division, said at the driving demonstration near the eastern German city of Magdeburg. “We don’t only talk about innovation, we implement it to underline our leadership position.”

Daimler Trucks faces increasing competition as Volvo Trucks, which ranks second worldwide in deliveries, has vowed to become the most profitable commercial-vehicle maker, while Volkswagen joins forces with its MAN and Scania brands. The Daimler unit, which contributed 27 percent of revenue and 15 percent of operating profit at the automaker last year, is eager to adapt technology from the sister Mercedes-Benz premium-car division in a push for complete accident prevention.

Google’s effort

Mercedes, which ranks third in worldwide luxury-car sales to BMW and Audi unit, demonstrated an automated S class in September, when Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche rode onto a Frankfurt car-show event stage in a driverless model.

BMW’s 5-series sedan is available with a system for parking itself, while software maker Google and electric-car producer Tesla Motors have been considering prospects for collaborating on autopilot technology.

The heavy-duty Actros, using a system branded as the Highway Pilot, drove back and forth along a stretch of the A14 Autobahn that’s under construction close to Magdeburg. During the 45-minute trip, the truck reduced speed and swerved to the side of the road as a police-car model raced past.

“Automated drive is a future trend,” Frank Schwope, a Hanover, Germany-based analyst at NordLB, said before Daimler staged the test drive. “People might be a little afraid at first, as with many technical innovations before they become commonplace. But ultimately, self-driving technologies will make trucks significantly safer.”

Driver’s override

The truck observes its surroundings with the help of four radar sensors and a stereo camera, and the system includes data about current traffic, topography and road conditions to allow for autonomous driving at speeds of as much as 55 mph. The driver can override the Highway Pilot at any time to take back full control, Bernhard said.

The truck can’t yet change lanes and pass other vehicles, a function that Daimler is working on, Bernhard said.

Daimler will be ready to introduce the system in Europe and the United States once legal frameworks have been adapted to allow drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for longer periods of time. The Highway Pilot may help to extend driving times between drivers’ obligatory breaks, reduce downtime for repairs and lower insurance premiums, Bernhard said.

Daimler Trucks, whose biggest nameplates are Mercedes-Benz in Europe, Freightliner in the United States and Fuso in Japan, reiterated forecasts of “significant” growth in sales and earnings before interest and taxes for 2014. First-quarter revenue at the division rose 1.4 percent from a year earlier to 7.1 billion euros ($9.7 billion) as EBIT almost tripled to 341 million euros.

Bernhard declined to comment on a possible price for the Highway Pilot technology because it won’t be on the market for another 10 years. He ruled out sharing it with competitors, as “we will keep the technological leap and savor it.”

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