Daimler Truck is installing its own CEO to lead Torc Robotics, ending a 17-year era of Michael Fleming’s leadership. The move folds the independent subsidiary further into the world’s largest truck maker.
Peter Vaughan Schmidt, currently head of Daimler Truck’s Autonomous Technology Group, will become Torc CEO on Oct. 1, Daimler Truck and Torc said Thursday.
Fleming co-founded Torc in 2005 while a graduate student at Virginia Tech. It became part of Daimler in 2019 when the truck maker acquired a majority stake for an undisclosed amount. Daimler also established a relationship with Waymo Via, the Alphabet Inc.-backed autonomous truck software developer.
Despite adding three locations since joining Daimler, Torc operated in relative obscurity compared to autonomous startups announcing practically every development by press release. Torc tests its Level 4 high-autonomy software with human supervisors on Class 8 Freightliner Cascadias out of a former car dealership in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Torc created a wholly owned European subsidiary in addition to its Blacksburg, Virginia, headquarters, the testing operation in Albuquerque and research and development in Portland, Oregon, the headquarters of Daimler Truck North America. Headcount has quadrupled to more than 600 since Torc became part of Daimler.
Changing of the guard
Fleming will retain a seat on Torc’s board and remain as a “key advisor.” He will spend more time on a nonprofit Self-Driving Institute he started three years ago and pursue his love of flying.
“I’ve only had one job. I’ve never had a promotion,” the 43-year-old Fleming told FreightWaves in a November interview. “I never sat in an interview where my performance was being assessed, and that’s just normal for me.”
In a blog post on the Torc website, Fleming described the pace of change required by expansion.
“This growth required Torc to bring on new leaders, create new teams, restructure existing teams, revamp processes and systems, and change the way we make decisions and communicate,” he wrote. “This growth would have not been possible without Torc’s commitment to drive change at all levels.”
Torc defines success as being the first to deliver a safe, scalable and profitable autonomous truck.
Schmidt, a former McKinsey associate principal in automotive and manufacturing, has worked at Daimler since 2005. His roles included strategy, product and platform management, as well as production and plant management. He was named head of Daimler Trucks’ autonomous business unit in 2019 and led the purchase of Torc.
Fleming described Schmidt, who will become a Torc employee, as his company’s biggest internal cheerleader.
“Peter has been involved in each phase of the evolution of Torc over the last few years: acquisition, continued investment and accelerated growth of Torc,” Fleming wrote.
Daimler Truck CEO Martin Daum, like Fleming, has declined to give a date when Cascadias with Torc autonomous software will be commercially available. But Daum said in a news release that it is time to take Torc to the next stage.
“The aim now is to establish Torc as a global company with four locations, bring autonomous trucking technology to perfection in the next few years and ultimately to series production,” Daum said.
For his part, Fleming could paraphrase the late Orson Welles’ line in the 1978 commercial for Paul Masson wine: “We will sell no wine before its time.”
“I think it’s an endless marathon,” Fleming said of autonomous trucking. “This isn’t something that’s going to be transformed overnight.”
Yet, the potential for autonomous trucking, when ready for prime time, is enormous.Think battery-electric and fuel cell trucks, both of which Daimler is developing, the latter in a joint venture with rival Volvo Group.
“Think about how these different technologies intersect,” Fleming told FreightWaves. “If there’s one innovative technology, it does a little bit of good. But when you have several innovative technologies that all come together, it turns exponential.”