Editor’s note: Corrects to show Waymo Via has not given a date to launch driverless trucks
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Most of the autonomous vehicle pioneers Michael Fleming assembled more than 15 years ago at Virginia Tech to form Torc Robotics are still with the independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, charged with leading the company to profitable driverless trucks.
They face less pressure than some of their startup competitors that raised money via special purpose acquisition companies and now face the filing of quarterly financial reports and other demands that can distract from technology development.
Watch now: Autonomous ride-along up Sandia Mountain in New Mexico
All Torc has to do is keep its manufacturing partner happy. Now that Daimler Truck is a standalone company following the conclusion of the “Operation Focus” spinoff from Daimler AG, interference from its longtime parent is unlikely.
Since merging with Daimler in 2019, Fleming has claimed that Torc will be the first autonomous truck developer to profitably scale robot trucks. But it is not obsessed with being first to market. Others predict they will remove the human driver as soon as late 2023.
“We’ve been at this for 15 years,” Fleming told FreightWaves in a November interview in a former Dodge dealership Torc has converted into its southwest U.S. testing facility. “I’ve yet to see a single milestone achieved as far as a product launch in the self-driving space.”
No ‘gun to our head’
Torc concluded that if autonomous trucks were to be the first meaningful application of robotics, Daimler would be the best partner, since it is the largest truck maker and gaining access to its long list of fleet customers was far easier than developing relationships from scratch.
“’We didn’t have a gun to our head,” Fleming said. “We were profitable. We’d never raised any [capital]. I mean, we were moving up and to the right. So why join Daimler Trucks?”
Ultimately, it was common ground. Fleming said Daimler Truck CEO Martin Daum understood that autonomous trucking is a marathon, not a sprint. That marathon could be a century, not 26.2 miles.
“You have to pace yourself. If you start sprinting and then have to change direction and sprint again, you can burn a lot of energy and find yourself in pretty much the same position that you started,” Fleming said. “One of my favorite sayings is slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Torc has the luxury of avoiding predictions on when its driverless truck will be introduced. Some time “within the decade” is the company’s consistent talking point.
“We’re not going to put out a firm date and say, ‘We’ll have a driver out truck in year X,’” Fleming said.
The work will be accomplished in phases. Daimler has developed a second-generation Cascadia chassis with redundant steering, braking, low-voltage power and network communications.
Waymo Via, the Alphabet-backed autonomous truck developer that grew out of the Google self-driving car project, is Daimler’s external partner for driverless trucks. Waymo identified more than 1,500 unique requirements for the Cascadia’s integrated chassis.
It has not given a target date to start commercial driverless operations, but it is not trailing its competitors, Boris Sofman, senior director of engineering and head of trucking and perception, told FreightWaves in an October interview.
“The first deployment of a self-driving truck isn’t the end of the marathon for us,” Torc Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Culhane said. “When you look at our focus, and that stability that Daimler gives us, it’s not [about] the cool demo. It’s not the one-off splashy thing. You can’t just be in it for that first headline.”
From the beginning
Torc, founded in 2005, was the driving force of a Virginia Tech robotics team that finished third in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, a 60-mile race for autonomous vehicles that required driving in traffic and performing complex maneuvers like merging, passing, parking and negotiating intersections.
Five years earlier, Fleming applied what he was learning in the classroom, Alfred Wicks, a Virginia Tech associate professor of mechanical engineering, told FreightWaves.
“The first big project was a remote controlled excavator for the Navy. Ordnance from WWI was buried near the Potomac River” at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, Wicks said.
“Movement of the river had exposed some of this hardware and the Navy wanted to clean up the site. Safety demanded that the clean-up be accomplished with a remote-control excavator. The Michael-led team completed that project on time and under budget.”
Fleming picks up the story with Torc’s commercialization out of the university known for the Virginia Tech Transportation Research Institute (VTTI). Torc’s headquarters in Blacksburg is next door to VTTI.
“Before this was mainstream, no one knew what self-driving or autonomous really was,” Fleming said. “The only way that you can commercialize this is to have safety first, have your game plan and be incredibly persistent. We’ve got a 16-year track record of being persistent.
“Some folks think it’s a little odd to be focused on one thing for over a decade and a half, but when you look at the potential that self-driving has, it keeps you going. How many people get an opportunity to transform the backbone of the U.S. economy?”
Up and down Sandia Mountain
So, how is Torc progressing on its autonomous journey?
An hour-long ride in a first-generation Torc-equipped Cascadia was a deliberate exercise that began only after numerous safety checkoffs. Our safety driver, Paul, piloted the fully loaded Cascadia out of the parking lot and onto surface streets until reaching an onramp to Interstate 25 North, which intersects I-40 East toward Amarillo, Texas.
“In all reality, this is probably going to be a very boring drive, which is the best kind of drive,” said Culhane, who narrated portions of the drive from his seat across from me and the large computer system behind the driver’s seat. Our seats would have been the sleeper portion of a regular Cascadia.
Unlike ride-alongs with other autonomous developers on mostly flat roads in Northern California, Arizona and Texas, this ride would ascend Sandia Mountain from just outside Albuquerque’s 5,500-foot elevation to near the mountain’s 10,600-foot peak. Heavy traffic gave way to lighter volumes as we climbed.
A blue light illuminating the crown of the cab indicated the robot was in charge. The Torc system, so far unnamed, executed a two-lane merge onto I-40 from I-25 and navigated downtown highway traffic, easily moving to the center lane from the busier right lane.
At the turnaround on the Sandia Pass, Paul disengaged the system because of two unprotected left turns. He also took over manually when a sheriff’s deputy was spotted on the right side of the road.
“We will never run autonomously next to an emergency vehicle today,” said Culhane.
Torc’s deliberate approach left out a few functions that competitors demonstrated, such as robotic driving on surface streets. None of the major driverless truck developers are driving in urban areas other than approaches to highways.
“Urban driving is an incredibly complex problem to solve, which is why you’ve seen this dramatic shift from robotaxi to interstate trucking,” Fleming said.
While we did not drive through a tunnel, which can cause a temporary loss of GPS, the Torc system had no problem with a burst of blinding sunlight as it emerged from beneath an overpass.
A dedicated bunch
About a dozen of Fleming’s original team are still working at Torc. That was appealing to Daimler.
“Being a founder-led company with many key leaders still onboard sends a strong message to employees that they can grow and develop with the company as it matures,” said Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of Daimler Truck’s Autonomous Technology Group. “Torc’s talent retention rate is among the best in the industry.”
Wicks compared Fleming’s leadership style to a successful baseball manager.
“At a high level, we have outfielders, infielders, pitchers, catchers and a bench manager,” he said. “The skill sets are completely different. They are all required to be effective. With successful teams. These roles are equally valued. Good managers allow these skills to be rewarded and not compete. It’s all about the team and the joint success. Torc is a great example of this.”
Baseball, specifically the Boston Red Sox — Fleming’s favorite team — inspired the red in Torc’s logo: Pantone PMS 186 C.
Culhane, who has been on board since the beginning, said the original team members share a commitment.
“Most of us have known each other from undergrad or grad school years, and have been committed to seeing this through,” he said. “We’ve added some new people obviously, but that’s part of growing up as a company and really scaling into this business.”
Torc has more than 400 employees today compared to 130 when it joined with Daimler.
“Andrew and I, as a lot of other Torcers, we were in undergrad together, grad school, the starting of Torc, through the ups and the downs,” Fleming said. “And we just think this is normal. It’s not.”