Daimler is Pushing Hard into Development of Automated Trucks

June 06, 2018 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Daimler Trucks will make its Freightliner Cascadia semi-tractor a global test bed for developing self-driving semi-tractors.

It also will open an automated truck research center at its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore.

The company, a division of German automaker Damiler AG, also said it will pour about $3 billion into research and development this year and next. That includes about $600 million on automated driving features and advance technology such as electric drivetrains.

Daimler revealed its autonomous truck development strategy during Daimler Trucks Capital Market and Technology Day, held in Portland for Wall Street analysts and investors on Tuesday.

The company launched work on self-driving trucks three years ago with the demonstration of its Inspiration autonomous big rig in the Arizona desert.

“But [autonomous driving] is a long way from just doing a demo somewhere in desert,” said Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of Daimler Trucks Strategy. “That has nothing to do with real automated driving.”

Freightliner's Inspiration autonomous truck.

Freightliner’s Inspiration autonomous truck. (Photo: Jerry Hirsch/Trucks.com)

A viable automated truck will need to be reliable, travel on highways and streets, operate at all times and in all weather conditions, Vaughan Schmidt said.

“It must have proven reduction in accidents and fatalities,” he said.

Daimler is looking to develop trucks that can operate with Level 4 autonomous capability and could be ready for sales to fleets in about five years, executives said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines a Level 4 autonomous vehicle as one that can drive itself in most situations, with some exceptions, such as weather or construction, where a human may need to take control.

Daimler used the Portland International Raceway to demonstrate truck platooning and safety technology such as automatic emergency braking. This is the type of technology that will be needed to develop fully self-driving trucks. Platooning allows groups of digitally tethered trucks to closely follow each other to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. Some truck manufacturers also believe it will increase safety by electronically reducing braking times in the vehicles following the lead trucks.

Daimler is developing a platooning system that would only be used for trucks it sells, starting with the Cascadia. But it could also be transferred to its Mercedes-Benz brand of heavy-duty trucks in Europe and Fuso vehicles in Asia, the company said.

It would be targeted at large U.S. fleet buyers who run Freightliner trucks. Initially, it would not be compatible with trucks from other manufacturers. Freightliner has about 38 percent of the market for trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment in the U.S.

Fully self-driving trucks are still many years away, Vaughan Schmidt said. But there is a huge business opportunity for selling digitally connected trucks with many driver assistance functions. Those would include platooning, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and automatic braking. Some of these functions are already in Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and vehicles from other automakers. But they require considerably more engineering to work in an 80,000-pound big rig and tractor that has dramatically different braking times and aerodynamics than a passenger vehicle, he said.

Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia trucks used for Data collection and autonomous driving tests.

Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia trucks at a test track near Portland, Ore. (Photo: Jerry Hirsch/Trucks.com)

Optimizing automated systems for highway driving as fully autonomous trucks remain under development is a mid-term achievable engineering challenge, Vaughan Schmidt said.

“Highway driving is the easiest problem to solve. All the vehicles are driving in one direction, the difference between speeds is low. There are the fewest variables,” he said.

It also is where motor carriers spend most of their time, so any improvements in efficiency and productivity make for a compelling business case, Vaughan Schmidt said.

The new Automated Truck Research and Development Center will lead Daimler’s global automated truck research and engineering facilities. It will be located at Daimler Trucks North America headquarters on Swan Island in Portland to leverage the existing facilities. This includes a full-scale heavy-duty truck wind tunnel and the High Desert Proving Grounds nearby in Madras, Ore.

daimler render

Daimler Trucks North America’s Portland, Ore. corporate headquarters. (Photo: Daimler)

Engineers a will collaborate with counterparts at Daimler Trucks locations in Stuttgart, Germany and Bangalore, India, who are working on automated driving and tapping previous research performed across other Daimler AG divisions such as the Mercedes-Benz car brand. The company also will expand automated truck research and development in Germany.

Daimler is locating the center in Portland because it has a test track nearby. The weather and traffic conditions in Portland area mimic what trucks will have to deal with throughout the U.S. and globally. The wide, open spaces in the U.S. and vast highway network also make road testing easier, Vaughan Schmidt said.

But Daimler isn’t ignoring other regions. It is launching a pilot program in cooperation with the airport in Frankfurt to used digitally tethered trucks operated by one driver to clear snow from runways and taxiways.

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