When Rainer Müller-Finkeldei started working on artificial intelligence at Daimler in 1995, few people knew what AI was or had heard of neural networks. Now he’s in the thick of autonomous truck development and more as the new senior vice president of engineering and technology at Daimler Trucks North America.
Müller-Finkeldei, who also has been appointed to DTNA’s operating committee, assumes responsibility for all DTNA product engineering activities. Müller-Finkeldei replaces Wilfried Achenbach, who will retire after a 10–year tenure in the role. He joins the company from Mercedes-Benz Trucks, where he has served as director of Mechatronics since 2010.
In a Zoom call with trucking journalists on Aug. 4, Müller-Finkeldei characterized himself as a “mad physics guy” who “studied computer science [when] nobody knew what that was.”
Müller-Finkeldei’s team pioneered SAE Level 2 autonomous technology that underpins advanced driver assist systems in Daimler brands worldwide. He also noted the advances in HMI (human-machine interface) systems in trucks, as dashboards have been moving from classic needle-based instrument clusters to multi-functional touch-screen displays.
“Taking over the lead for the full vehicle development is a great opportunity,” he said, noting he was especially excited about electric trucks and autonomous technology.
“I’m really happy to be involved in our great journey to pioneer autonomous driving in trucks,” he said, “something I was fascinated about right from the beginning. Having followed these technologies, we’re now seeing that evolving to a totally new level; for me it’s one of the technologies that has the potential of changing the overall transportation industry globally.”
He was on the team at Daimler when it started developing autonomous trucks, he said. But when we’ll actually get to true “driverless trucks” is not something he feels one can predict.
“As always in something as innovative and unexplored as autonomous driving is, it’s hard to say whenever this point will be,” he said. “We are focused on making level 4 autonomous driving possible. Level 5, having a truck that fully autonomously is able to cope with every situation, this a technology that I see pretty way out there.”
Daimler, he said, is focused on one area that has “a good chance of being the first segment where Level 4 autonomous driving is technically possible, and this is the classic hub to hub, on known routes, where we have exact mapping of those roads, where we can make sure the vehicle is in a safe place when it starts, and we can closely monitor those vehicles.”
DTNA is working with Torc Robotics in this effort; last year, Daimler Trucks acquired a majority stake in Torc as part of a strategy that will see the United States become the focus of the company’s autonomous technology development efforts.
“Yes, it’s still a way out, there are still quite some problems to conquer and to solve, but with our partner Torc we are learning every day, and automated trucks are out on the road collecting data every day in autonomous mode with a safety driver on board, and we are learning every day how to make this happen,” Müller-Finkeldei said. “I’m not able to give you a date when this will be, but I’m confident that we picked the right spot to have the first application of autonomous driving, in trucks and in that very specific use case of hub-to-hub delivery.”
He contrasted his reticence to predict a timeline with some of the many companies that are out there working on autonomous vehicle development. “If I look at the startups, they are always saying it will be next year – and every year it’s next year.”
Perhaps on the nearer horizon are batter-electric trucks. Müller-Finkeldei pointed to DTNA’s Innovation Fleet of eCascadias and eM2s, a fleet of 30 electric trucks that so far has accumulated 300,000 miles in real-world use by customers.
Globally, he said, there are already electric commercial buses operating in many cities, and the knowledge gained from those operations has been used to help develop electric trucks.
He also pointed out that when it comes to electric trucks, there’s more to putting them into service than just building a working truck.
“It’s not enough to simply have an electric driven truck with some batteries and electric motors,” he said. “You have to have the full environment and infrastructure in place at your customers. You have to work with your customers from the beginning to figure out if the application is suitable for electric drive in terms of range, in terms of the possibility of bringing back the vehicle to a central hub, is there time to do the recharging of the batteries and so on. And we work with customers to build up the needed [charging] infrastructure.”
Today, he said the cost of electric trucks is still too high to make them competitive with conventional diesel, but with coming advances in areas such as next-generation electric components and batteries, “we can see that also in the next years we will see electric vehicles coming to a point where for certain applications – and this is for sure still limited range, we are talking about a range of 100-200 miles or a little more – that this will come into a position where from an economic standpoint it makes sense to move over from an internal combustion engine.”
Advancing Conventional Powertrains
While autonomous and electric trucks may be exciting future-looking projects, Müller-Finkeldei also emphasized that conventional diesel-powered trucks are still customers’ main focus.
The company will soon be launching a new Western Star, for instance, which he said he is “very convinced will be the next big thing in the vocational market.” DTNA has been working to carry over the technology from its on-highway truck leadership and use it to meet the needs and expectations of vocational customers.
“We are focusing on continuing to develop fuel economy benefits that every year add more savings” for customers, he said. Connectivity is also a big focus, which helps improve uptime and reliability.
Connectivity and the data that comes from that, he said, also can help DTNA give information to customers to help them improve their businesses. “What can I do for example to train my drivers to get even better fuel economy? How can I make best use of the safety systems out there? I am convinced there is still quite a potential of finding efficiencies and savings for our customers.”
When it comes to telematics, he also pointed out that DTNA is working with partners such as Platform Science to integrate third-party applications into its trucks. “You wouldn’t expect a smartphone OEM to make all their own apps.”
More About the Transition
Müller-Finkeldei joined Daimler’s research labs in 1995 while working on his PhD. He obtained his PhD and Masters in Computer Science and Physics from the Julius-Maximilians University of Wurzburg, Germany, and he studied computer science at both the University of Würzburg and the University of Texas at Austin. He and his family will relocate to Portland from their home in Stuttgart.
From 2006 to 2010, Müller-Finkeldei served as the senior manager of Mechatronics’ integration and validation team. Since joining Daimler, he has held increasing roles of responsibility across Daimler business units and engineering functions, including Daimler Trucks product creation group, electronics development at Daimler vans, and Daimler’s research and technology department.
Achenbach joined DTNA from his former role as director of Mechatronics at Mercedes-Benz Trucks – the role now vacated by Müller-Finkeldei.
“Achenbach leaves an enduring mark on the DTNA team,” according to the announcement, “having solidified an engineering culture defined by its values of teamwork, engineering excellence, fuel economy leadership and, above all, safety. Under Achenbach’s stewardship, DTNA became the first commercial vehicle manufacturer in North America to introduce an SAE Level 2 autonomous advanced driver assistance system, Detroit Assurance.