As more startups announce testing for highly automated trucks, Daimler Trucks remains comparatively quiet.
Even in celebrating a year of partnering with Torc Robotics, which Daimler Trucks purchased in March 2019, the focus is on safe automation ahead of promotion.
The parent of Freightliner, the top-selling Class 8 truck brand in the U.S. and Canada, is collaborating with Torc to put series-produced Level 4 trucks on the roads within the decade. That includes a Level 4 test fleet, a redesigned truck chassis and adoption of a hub-to-hub model the trucks will travel.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group.
Daimler likely won’t be first to sell Level 4 trucks. Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV), working with startup TuSimple, said in July it is targeting 2024 for a Level 4 tractor capable of cross-country travel without a dedicated driver.
“Torc and Daimler have focused on a product, not a demo,” Torc CEO Michael Fleming said during an online media roundtable on Sept. 1. “We are not following a startup playbook. We are two well- established companies that understand and appreciate the complexities of bringing a safe product to market.”
Freight tonnage growth will demand driverless help
Regardless of timing, driverless technology will be needed.
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports U.S. truck tonnage rose by 56 percent in the past decade. Tonnage is expected to nearly double in the next 25 years. Autonomous trucking is considered a solution for an industry whose drivers are aging with few younger replacements coming along.
Daimler Trucks and Torc developed a comprehensive validation approach and safety protocols for automated driving. They are aligned with the federal framework policy for testing and commercial deployment of Level 4 automated trucks.
Daimler’s Autonomous Technology Group will extend testing to a new center in Albuquerque, New Mexico this fall. Daimler and Torc began on-road Level 4 testing near Torc’s Blacksburg, Virginia headquarters a year ago. They also conducted closed-track road testing at the Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) High Desert Proving Grounds in Madras, Oregon.
During downtime forced by the coronavirus pandemic, the teams pivoted to computer simulations. Public road testing resumed in Virginia in June 2020 and continues with next-generation software. The team in Oregon will continue focusing on vehicle safety system development.
Engineers and safety drivers on board
All Daimler/Torc automated test drives have a safety conductor who oversees the autonomous system and a highly trained safety driver.
Working with Daimler “has moved our system faster than we could have done alone as a technology firm,” Fleming said. Torc’s “Asimov” autonomous driving system is integrated into Daimler. Asimov was tested successfully on public roads, including a cross-country journey.
Daimler showed its first autonomous prototype, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, six years ago. Daimler Trucks Chairman Martin Daum said in January 2019 the company would skip Level 3 semi-autonomous trucking to focus on Level 4 trucks capable of handling most on-road situations without human intervention.
A month later, it demonstrated Level 2 autonomy on its flagship Cascadia, allowing limited hands- and feet-free operation with full attention of the driver. Cascadias with the Level 2 technology went on sale in September 2019.
“We know this will not happen overnight,” DTNA President and CEO Roger Nielsen said, referring to Level 4 autonomy. “But with our priority and vision for safer roads and efficiencies for our customers, we are committed to the journey.”
DTNA’s approach to battery-electric trucks may foreshadow its plans for autonomous testing when it is satisfied it is ready. DNTA’s fleet of 30 eCascadias and eM2 medium-duty trucks have has amassed more than 300,000 miles with Penske Truck Leasing and NFI Industries.