MUNICH (dpa-AFX) - MAN is testing its driverless trucks on the highway. On Thursday, Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) will also venture on board. On the A9 north of Munich, he wants to drive in a computer-controlled semitrailer truck from Allershausen just under ten kilometers to the Fürholzen-West service area and promote the new technology. The law that makes this possible dates back to his predecessor Andreas Scheuer (CSU).

Truck manufacturer MAN developed the test vehicle together with suppliers Bosch, Knorr-Bremse, Leoni, Tüv Süd and other partners and tested it on the company's own test site. With a special permit, it is now going onto the highway for further testing. The truck is always monitored remotely by employees in a control center and controlled if necessary, as MAN spokesman Gregor Jentzsch emphasizes. There is also a safety driver at the wheel who can intervene at any time.

Business worth billions hoped for

Truck manufacturers and suppliers are hoping for big business with self-driving trucks. Daimler Trucks has already been driving self-driving trucks on highways in the USA for a year in pilot projects with customers, wants to launch them regularly on the market in 2027 and generate three billion dollars in sales and one billion dollars in earnings before interest and taxes by 2030, according to Group spokesman Paul Mandaiker.

MAN does not yet have such concrete plans. "At the end of the day, it has to be worthwhile for a haulier to purchase the technology," said MAN spokesman Gregor Jentzsch. And lists a whole range of advantages: There is a huge driver shortage in Europe and the USA. Autonomous trucks do not have to observe driving times and rest breaks, they can theoretically drive around the clock. They won't get tired or inattentive, and the number of accidents is likely to fall. Instead of driving semitrailer trucks with containers back and forth on the highway between Hamburg and Munich and regularly spending the night in the driver's cab far away from home, more drivers could work in regional transport, load vehicles and deliver goods in the future.

Haulage industry has doubts

But customers are skeptical. Self-driving trucks "sound good in theory," says Dirk Engelhardt, spokesman for the Federal Association of Road Haulage, Logistics and Disposal (BGL). In principle, he also sees this as positive - but with many question marks: "How often are there failures in the radio network? How does it work in heavy rain, fog, snow? At roadworks? When the road markings have faded?" Then there are the high investment costs. Both truck manufacturers and freight forwarders will have to invest a lot of money in the conversion to e-mobility in the coming years, which is required by law and is now a priority.

According to the BGL, there is already a shortage of 120,000 truck drivers in Germany alone. Every year, 30,000 retire and only 15,000 new drivers are added, says Engelhardt. But he doubts that autonomous trucks will help in the foreseeable future. In ten years at the earliest, they should be able to drive properly on public roads. But without a driver? The autopilot has not made pilots in airplanes superfluous, and trains are still driven by train drivers. "Why autonomous driving should find its way into road traffic, which is much more complex, is beyond me," says the head of the association.

MAN has already tested autonomous trucks for handling in the port of Hamburg and for loading onto trains and has reported efficiency gains of up to 40 percent. The shuttle service between two logistics points on the highway is scheduled to run until the end of the year, after which practical projects with customers are planned, and the vehicles could then go into series production around 2030.

Pioneer USA

Daimler wants to be ready by 2027 and is focusing on the much larger US market. The freight volume there is expected to double by 2050. "With its long highways, increasing demand for freight transportation, large truck fleets and forward-looking regulatory authorities, the USA offers an ideal first field of application for the use of this new technology," says Group spokesperson Paul Mandaiker. Overall, the USA is very positive about the use of autonomous vehicles. In the next step, Daimler could then also go into series production with autonomous trucks in Europe. For commercialization, however, it is crucial that the use is possible across borders.

Continental is also relying on the USA. Together with the US software company Aurora, the German supplier wants to produce an autonomous driving system in series in 2027. Aurora is working with major truck manufacturers such as Paccar. The demand is high, "because of the long distances, because of the shortage of drivers - that will be the first market for us," said Conti spokeswoman Jennifer Weyrich./rol/DP/stk