Daimler Trucks and Torc Robotics plan to open a new testing center in Albuquerque as they work together to bring self-driving trucks to U.S. highways by the end of this decade.
After delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the companies resumed public road testing of autonomous trucks in Virginia in June as they develop the software, or so-called virtual driver for the vehicles.
Daimler also is working designing a heavy-duty truck chassis purpose-built for autonomous driving. It will include redundant systems to bolster safety, the company said.
Daimler purchased a majority interest in Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg, Va.-based maker of highly automated vehicle systems last year. It partnered the company with its Autonomous Technology Group, the Daimler units looking to commercial autonomous driving.
The German automaker owns the Freightliner truck Mercedes-Benz car brands and wants to build what the automotive industry calls Level 4 autonomous trucks to perform all driving tasks and monitor their surroundings for hazards. Essentially, the robotic system would do all the driving in most circumstances, but a driver would still be able to control the vehicle.
Daimler and Torc have a broad timeline for rolling out Level 4 autonomous trucks. In a news conference Tuesday, executives from the companies talked about having the technology commercially ready by the end of this decade. But they also said they expect to launch pilot programs with customers on some trucking lanes where factors such as regulation, road conditions and mild climate allow an earlier timeline.
The goal is to develop trucks that operate in a hub-to-hub network. The vehicles would leave depots or distribution centers that have easy highway access, free of urban driving complexities. The trucks would maneuver themselves onto the highway and then drive autonomously for hundreds of miles, perhaps making a few lane changes or road transitions. They would then travel to another highway-close hub. Human drivers would operate trucks that handle first- and last-mile freight in this type of network, which involves routes in more complex, high traffic environments.
They are focusing on freight operations because the goal of creating a fleet of robo-taxis that would replace or supplement individual driving has proved elusive, said Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of the Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group.
However, there’s an increasingly clear business case for applying autonomous technology to freight movement, Schmidt said.
Freight demand is increasing. Autonomous driving could relieve regulatory limits on human driving. And it will improve safety, Schmidt said. According to federal safety data, human error causes more than 90 percent of automotive crashes in the U.S.
“One of the things that I’ve seen in the self-driving space over the last 18 or 24 months is there has been this tectonic shift from the robo-taxi market into trucking,” said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics.
Fleming said one of the hurdles autonomous trucking still faces is a lack of adequate hardware to make the vehicles commercially viable.
“It has to meet the performance specifications to address not only safety, but ensuring that we can drive efficiently to the destination and deliver goods and in a timely fashion and it also must be cost-effective,” he said.
Daimler, which as a global auto and truck manufacturer has weight in the industry, is pushing suppliers “to push the envelope” on radar, LiDAR – light detection and ranging sensors – cameras and computer systems to speed development, he said.
As the team moves forward, it will launch the technology for use in settings that reduce complexity. For example, the trucks will operate from distribution centers easy to reach from the highway, the executives said. They won’t attempt to provide vehicles that can drive throughout the U.S. but instead will look for “sweet spots” where the conditions make sense. They will start with demonstration projects to gain insight and customer experience.
For now, Daimler is conducting all automated test drives with the combination of a safety conductor overseeing the system and a safety driver trained in vehicle dynamics and automated systems.
Fleming compared the commercialization of autonomous trucks to cell phone service. At first, phones were the size of bricks and worked in limited areas. But they shrunk in size and coverage areas expanded. At the same time, they advanced technologically to the point where they are now ubiquitous pocket computers that people use nearly everywhere.
Schmidt said the self-driving truck adoption curve will start low and then grow significantly as fleets gain experience and the economics become favorable.