* Daimler unveils self-driving Mercedes-Benz truck
* Touts big savings in manpower, fuel costs
* Needs to convince regulators, overcome opposition
By Edward Taylor and Laurence Frost
MAGDEBURG, Germany/PARIS, July 3 Balding
middle-aged trucker Hans Luft was toying conspicuously with an
iPad behind the wheel of his 40-tonne heavy goods vehicle as it
hurtled down the autobahn under the approving gaze of assembled
The Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 prototype, demonstrated
on Thursday along a closed-off stretch of the A14 near
Magdeburg, Germany, is a major step in an escalating race to
develop self-driving vehicles.
"The drive was relaxing," Luft told reporters afterwards.
Daimler, already at the forefront of German efforts to
counter Google's advances in driverless cars, sees at
least as much potential for automation in road haulage.
The world's biggest truckmaker is confident that its
technology can overcome regulatory and legal hurdles - even if
the scale of wage and fuel savings on offer spells likely
conflict with freight unions in the long run.
"Autonomous driving will revolutionize road freight
transport and create major benefits," said Daimler Trucks chief
"We aim to be the number one manufacturer in this market of
the future which we believe will offer solid revenue and
Clad in mystery-enhancing adhesive foil, the Mercedes
prototype is equipped with aerodynamic fins and radar that scans
the road 250 meters ahead.
It also makes fuller use of features already found in
current production models, by networking on-board sensors with
automatic braking, stability control and lane-warning systems.
As the vehicle's name suggests, the intention is to launch a
roadworthy version by 2025.
"This truck will not just remain a prototype," Bernhard
Daimler may not have the road to itself. Sweden's Scania, a
unit of Volkswagen, is among peers working on
"platooning" technology that allows several trucks to travel in
tight convoy with a sole human driver in the lead vehicle.
Autonomous driving proponents face the twin challenges of
meeting safety concerns while persuading lawmakers that accident
liability can still be established. But the potential gains may
offer powerful incentives to overcome them.
Daimler said its truck model still requires human oversight
while freeing the driver to perform back-office tasks such as
handling bookings and billing, or planning future itineraries.
The driver's seat can become an office chair or swivels to a
"rest position", Daimler said - potentially allowing vehicles to
drive for longer than current daily working limits for truckers.
Fuel and driver wages each account for 27 percent of current
operating costs for a typical haulage firm, according to a study
by France's CNR, a government agency that monitors the sector.
"Once you include travelling expenses, total driver costs
rise to a full third, the biggest item," a CNR official said.
Even without removing the drivers, he added, "their share of
total cost will fall if there are other productivity gains - if
you use a little less driver for a given distance, so to speak."
The automated vehicles also save fuel by driving more
economically, according to Daimler.
Even once legal and technological obstacles are cleared,
however, self-driving trucks may face further resistance - not
least from unions that wield serious clout in many countries.
"We would have concerns," said Adrian Jones, a transport
official at Unite, Britain's biggest union.
"We need to maintain the very high standards that we've
got," he said. "What's the point being there if you're not
paying any attention and you're not supervising in effect?"
Opposition is also likely in France, where the government
last year scrapped an environmental truck tax after widespread
protests brought highways to a halt.
Labour representatives will be "extremely vigilant about the
impact on jobs, wages and road safety" if attempts are made to
introduce self-driving trucks, the Paris-based CFDT union said.
"We must resist any temptation to consider that a driver is
resting when the truck is on auto-pilot," spokesman Fabian
Tosolini. "That's not what happens in planes, for good reason."
(Additional reporting by Costas Pitas in London; Editing by