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Daimler, Waymo joining forces to build autonomous Freightliner Cascadia

Two of the biggest names in trucking and autonomous vehicles to partner on Class 8 truck development and deployment

(Image: Daimler)

  • Daimler and Waymo announced a strategic partnership to develop and deploy autonomous trucks.
  • The collaboration will focus initially on integrating redundant safety systems into a custom chassis.
  • Waymo CEO: “We always had a plan to unlock the Class 8 automated driver.”

Two of the biggest names in trucking and autonomous vehicles announced a partnership on Tuesday, raising the stakes in the race among OEMs and startups alike to get fully autonomous trucks on the road.

Global manufacturer Daimler Trucks is collaborating with Google-backed self-driving vehicle company Waymo to deploy fully autonomous trucks, executives said during a virtual press conference.

Their initial effort will combine Waymo’s automated driver technology with a version of Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia, its flagship vehicle.

“This is a historic moment, when the best in trucking manufacturing OEM meets the best in software,” said Martin Daum, chair of the Daimler AG board and the former CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA). 

Daimler is not paying Waymo for its technology, said Daum. “You don’t have to marry just to go to the cinema and watch a movie,” he said somewhat coyly. “We are working very closely together.” 

Targeting the ‘redundant chassis’

Joining Daum at the briefing were Waymo CEO John Krafcik and Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of DTNA. The focus of the collaboration, they said, will be on integrating redundant safety systems into a custom chassis for autonomous driving.

Waymo has “worked hard” with braking and steering suppliers, seeding development of redundant systems for passenger vehicles, according to Krafcik. “But on the Class 8 side these components do not exist today.” 

“That’s going to be one of the primary gating items for bringing this technology to the world,” he explained — “the development and mass production of safe and redundant steering, braking and powertrain control systems that work with fully autonomous Level 4 systems like Waymo.”

Level 4 trucks can operate without a driver under most conditions.

Rollout likely years away

The autonomous Freightliner Cascadia truck, equipped with the Waymo Driver, will be available first to customers in the U.S. and “wherever it will lead in the future,” said Daum.

The three executives declined to comment on the size of the fleet or exactly when it might be deployed, but any rollout is likely years away.

“We will not release a vehicle for Level 4 operation until we are absolutely convinced it is safe to operate,” Nielsen said. “There’s millions of miles of testing, simulated and real, that we would need to drive to get to the point where we are convinced that we have this solution properly designed and developed.”

In 2019, during the Consumer Electronics Show in Law Vegas, the Daimler team announced the company would invest around $570 million to bring Level 4 automated trucks to the road within a decade. 

Also in 2019 Daimler merged its autonomous efforts into the Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group, combining best practices from Germany; Blacksburg, Virginia; and Portland, Oregon.

Existing partnerships still on track

The high profile Waymo partnership doesn’t alter these plans and projects, according to the Daimler team. Its relationship with Torc Robotics, an autonomous software developer (with a lower profile than Waymo) Daimler acquired in 2019, is likewise on track.

Daimler’s business model revolves around customer choice, said Nielsen, noting the manufacturer provides options in powertrains, transmissions and eventually, autonomous vehicle platforms.

“By having a dual-strategy approach where we are working with Waymo and another company,” he said, “we give customers the choice they demand of us.”

Waymo steps up freight activity

Headquartered in Silicon Valley, Waymo is best known for the company’s driverless ride-hailing service, Waymo One. In October, the company opened that service to the public in Phoenix.

But freight and delivery have long been part of Waymo’s business plan, Krafcik said, rejecting suggestions that the company was “pivoting” toward delivery as a result of the pandemic. “We have always had a plan to unlock the Class 8 automated driver,” he said.

Nevertheless, Krafcik acknowledged, around the world, people are relying more on e-commerce, and “every aspect of logistics has become more interesting. I’m glad we have this opportunity to lean more heavily into it.”

Partnerships between truck OEMs and self-driving vehicle startups have accelerated in recent months. Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV), working with startup TuSimple, said in July it is targeting 2024 for a Level 4 tractor. 

Earlier this month, announced mass production of its Level 3 trucks would start in China in 2021, in partnership with FAW Jiefang, China’s largest truck manufacturer. The company also revealed it had selected AWS as its cloud provider.

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Plus taps AWS as cloud provider as Amazon tightens grip on autonomous vehicles

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]