Mercedes-Benz reveals Future Truck 2025, the Optimus Prime of self-driving semis

·Managing Editor

U.S. trucking firms have long complained that they have more jobs than drivers — about 30,000 more, according to the most recent figures from the American Trucking Association. And who can blame someone for choosing another profession, what with the weeks on the road away from family and the stress of just-in-time delivery schedules for the chance to earn an average of $50,000 a year.

Today, Mercedes-Benz revealed the full details of how it sees the trucks of the future making the drivers of today more of a profession than a trade — with an Optimus Prime-like rig that can drive itself while the "transport manager" types away in his luxury studio.

Mercedes had previously shown a camouflaged version of the Future Truck 2025 that highlighted its autonomous driving abilities with a full load up to 50 mph, an expanded version of what the company already offers to buyers of the new S-Class coupes and sedans. Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Mercedes' truck division, has said autonomous driving would be the future of trucking, but one that was still a decade away given higher technological and legal hurdles.

What Mercedes had not shown before was just how radical it imagined the look of the Future Truck to be. Start with the front, where there are no headlamps — the Future Truck uses fields of LEDs embedded across its fascia to light its path, which glow from underneath its skin. They don't just beam one color, but change colors from white to a shade of purple and pulse slowly to indicate a truck that's driving itself.

The radical rethink extends to the cabin, where Mercedes has tried to answer the question of what a truck driver will do if he or she doesn't have to drive for several hours. In place of the bank of controls in a modern semi, Mercedes has reduced most of the necessary info into a few screens, turning the cabin into a expanse of wood and leather like a high-end New York hotel room. The driver's seat swivels 45 degrees to the right, so that a driver can stretch out when controlling the truck through its iPad-like touchscreen. And there's a digital picture frame in back for remembering the family while on the road.

In that one flourish, Mercedes may be trying to assuage worries that Future Truck and similar projects will eliminate jobs rather than alter them, making truck driving more white collar, or like the ultimate telecommuter. "The profession of truck driver will become more attractive – autonomous driving is therefore also a compelling answer to the shortage of drivers," the company said today. "With autonomous driving, the truck and its driver become a team more than ever before, an intelligent, highly capable and cost-effective combination of man and machine." We may not know before 2025 whether Future Trucks will serve as a real-life Optimus Prime — or become an economic Decepticon for drivers.

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