I've been fairly skeptical of the likelihood of seeing driverless cars in the near future, partially because the economic case was weak, but primarily because the data infrastructure was prohibitively expensive, at least if you wanted a car that could go anywhere (and that flexibility is one of the main reasons for having a car).
Driverless trucks are another story. There you have vehicles with significant labor costs that mostly travel a relatively small number of routes. Though Daimler is obviously downplaying the possibility, I would not be at all surprised to hear that fully autonomous trucks will be operating in at least a few countries in the next decade.
Automaker Daimler unveiled a truck last week that drives itself, called the Freightliner Inspiration. But the truck is not yet entirely autonomous.
"You still have the driver in the driver's seat, ready to take over at all times in case something goes wrong or the system encounters a situation it's not really well prepared for," says Alex Davies, associate editor for Wired, who was at the demonstration and rode in the big rig.
The driver controls the rig on surface roads, but on the highway, engages the autopilot mode. Cameras detect the lane lines to keep the truck headed in the right direction, Davies tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
"Then from there on, the truck will stay in its lane, maintain its speed and a safe distance from other vehicles," he says. "But you still need to be in the seat, ready to take over."
And being ready to take over means the driver can't exactly take a nap.
When it's time for the driver to take over — at the correct exit or if bad weather hits — the truck alerts the driver with a beep. If the driver doesn't respond, the truck slows and eventually comes to a complete stop, Davies says.
Daimler says the Inspiration, the first self-driving truck licensed to roll on public roads — highways and interstates in Nevada — is the future of trucking and may hit the market before autonomous cars, according to the Associated Press. Drivers will still be human, but might be called "logistics managers."
"The human brain is still the best computer money can buy," said Daimler Trucks North America LLC CEO Martin Daum.
Davies says no automaker will ever use the term "driverless" for a vehicle, preferring the safer-sounding "autonomous" or, in the case of the Freightliner Inspiration, "piloted."