Self-driving semitruck gets license to ride

Self-driving trucks hit the road
Self-driving trucks hit the road   

The world's first autonomous 18-wheeler is getting down to business. At a ceremony at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Tuesday, Gov. Brian Sandoval handed over an official Nevada license plate for use by a new Freightliner Inspiration Truck on public roads.

Though a human "driver" will need to sit behind the wheel in case of an emergency, the new system is intended to usher in an era that could very well lead to fleets of trucks that have no humans on board at all, said Wolfgang Bernhard, the board member overseeing truck operations at Freightliner's parent, Daimler.

Read MoreAmerica's new favorites: Small SUVs and crossovers

Even in its current, more limited form, the technology offers a number of advantages, Bernhard said, noting that 90 percent of truck crashes involve human error, according to government data, much of that due to fatigue.

"An autonomous system never gets tired, never gets distracted," Bernhard said. "It is always on 100 percent."

Proponents of autonomous vehicles also contend the technology will reduce fuel consumption and emissions and improve roadway utilization—translating into more cars operating more smoothly on crowded urban roads.

Freightliner unveils its Inspiration self-driving truck during an event at the Hoover Dam Tuesday, May 5, 2015, near Boulder City, Nev.
John Locher | AP
Freightliner unveils its Inspiration self-driving truck during an event at the Hoover Dam Tuesday, May 5, 2015, near Boulder City, Nev.

Initially, however, Daimler plans to operate the first of its Freightliner Inspiration Trucks in one of the country's least crowded states. Nevada was the first state in the country to create special regulations for the use of self-driving vehicles—along with a unique license plate, the bright red tags on the Freightliner rig distinguished by its symbol for infinity.

For the time being, the truck will be limited in where it can operate until other states create similar regulations—California and Michigan may be next. "Ultimately, this has to be federally regulated to have a consistent basis across the country," said Martin Daum, the president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America.

10,000 miles tested

Daimler officials said they have already logged over 10,000 miles testing the Inspiration truck, enough to make them feel confident it can operate safely on public roads. They noted it is what the industry refers to as Level 3 technology, which means the rig cannot operate under all conditions without driver input. For one thing, said Bernhard, its sensors require clearly visible white lane stripes.

More from The Detroit Bureau:
New driver aid systems should sharply reduce accidents
Autonomous cars coming fast, says Google tech chief
Most Americans happy to keep driving

And a human must remain in the driver's seat, ready to take over at a moment's notice should there be a problem. During a news conference, questions were raised about whether that human co-pilot might want up being distracted or even doze off. But Bernhard said studies by Daimler found that "driver distraction decreases about 25 percent when the truck is operating in autonomous mode."

Dubbing the unveiling "a historic moment," and the "next step in revolutionizing the way we make goods," Gov. Sandoval said Nevada aims to take a lead in the development of autonomous transportation. A wide range of other manufacturers have also begun testing their prototype vehicles in the state. But most of the focus has been on passenger cars. Google is now working on a fleet of bubble-shaped prototypes.

Read MoreWhat drivers REALLY want

Manufacturers including Nissan, Tesla and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz, have promised to introduce fully autonomous vehicles early in the next decade. Nissan and General Motors' Cadillac are among those who aim to phase that in, with more limited self-driving systems starting next year.

Daimler's interest in truck technology reflects that the shipment of goods is growing fast—total freight traffic shipped by road is expected to triple by 2050 worldwide, Bernhard said.

The maker is expected to provide more details on the commercialization of its autonomous truck technology during a series of demonstrations this week in Las Vegas.