Next time you're cruising down the highway, take a look at that massive Class 8 rig next to you and imagine that nobody is at the wheel.
Even though that isn't likely to happen for a couple of decades, Freightliner is conducting road tests of self-driving semitrailers.
It could prove to be a lucrative market for component and technology suppliers, since a fully automated big rig will require an estimated $23,400 worth of sensors and software, according to a study released in April by Roland Berger, a consulting firm based in Munich.
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With 3 million 18-wheelers plying U.S. highways, that adds up to a significant market for suppliers such as Continental AG and Robert Bosch GmbH, which produce sensors and software for self-driving vehicles.
In eight years or so, self-driving trucks will allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel, feet off the pedals and eyes off the road, according to the survey.
The driver still would have to be ready to take control immediately -- which means no naps in the bunk of a moving big rig. The automated trucks also would be largely confined to interstate highways, which would preclude terrifying encounters on the crowded streets of Boston, Chicago and other cities.
Stephan Keese, who authored the Roland Berger study, forecasts that trucking firms could reduce labor costs since a long-haul driver could theoretically "rest" without pulling over. Truck companies that specialize in long, interstate routes could expect a three-year payback on their investment, Keese says.
The economics of driverless trucks would be iffier for small firms -- especially if fleets of self-driving trucks require regional logistics centers to track their routes.
The necessary expenditure "is a lot of money," Keese says. "Not everyone will be able to afford it. You need a big investment that smaller operators will struggle to match."
A platoon of driverless trucks also could save fuel by playing follow-the-leader in a steady rolling convoy, with a gap of 30 or 40 feet between vehicles.
Individual truckers sometimes do this today. But a self-driving convoy of 10 trucks easily could stretch for a half-mile, creating a serious roadblock for other motorists who might want to take an exit. That's why Keese expects self-driving platoons will be limited to three or four trucks.
The initial motivation for driverless trucks will be safety rather than operating costs, proponents believe.
"We expect regulators to [promote] this for the next eight to 10 years," Keese says.
Nonetheless, suppliers and truck manufacturers are testing the technology.
Continental is developing components to tap the growing interest, says James Bayley, vice president of Continental Automotive Systems Inc.'s commercial vehicles unit.
"You will first see the introduction of technologies like collision avoidance and lane departure warnings," he says.
Meanwhile, Bosch has introduced Servotwin, a steering system that provides lane-keeping assist and cross-wind compensation.
Bosch, Continental and other suppliers could get a boost if Freight-liner successfully develops its Inspiration truck, a prototype unveiled last year that is licensed to undergo road tests in Nevada.
By punching a button on the steering wheel, a driver activates the truck's Highway Pilot, which can steer, accelerate and brake the truck within one lane of a clearly marked highway.
The truck is a Level 3 self-driving vehicle, which means the driver must monitor the road and be prepared to take over quickly.
Full automation still might be 20 to 25 years away, but the vehicle technology will restructure the trucking business when it comes, Keese predicts.
"When you go to completely driverless trucks, you will see disruption of the trucking industry," Keese said. "A lot of operators will be frozen out of long-haul routes and will have to focus on local distribution."