I was fortunate enough to be on hand when Daimler Trucks North America sparked off the race to develop a commercially viable autonomous truck with the advent of its Inspiration Truck in 2015. I “drove” that truck in heavy traffic around Las Vegas. A couple of years later, I joined Daimler Trucks yet again – this time on the Autobahn outside of Dusseldorf, Germany, for a more advanced demonstration of autonomous technology focused on three-truck platooning with Mercedes-Benz Actros Class 8 tractor-trailers.
Since then, autonomous-truck development hasn’t been nearly as splashy. After an initial burst of publicity, autonomous technology developers have largely retreated to their laboratories and test tracks to develop a truly transformative next generation of commercial vehicles.
So when DTNA subsidiary Torc Robotics reached out to Heavy Duty Trucking to see if we would be interested in an exclusive, in-person update on its autonomous progress at its main testing center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we jumped at the opportunity.
According to CEO Michael Fleming, whom I met with later in the day, Torc was the first autonomous start-up company to realize that deep integration with a commercial vehicle OEM was the only way to successfully develop autonomous truck technology and bring it to market. In 2019, Fleming and DTNA inked a deal that allowed the OEM to acquire a majority share in Torc. Since then, the two companies have been working together in a deep-dive collaborative effort that will not only bring self-driving trucks to market, Fleming said, but also will usher in a completely new, purposely redesigned generation of trucks engineered from the ground up to be completely integrated with autonomous driving technology.
Never Annoyed, Angry or Impatient
Torc’s Albuquerque testing facility is in a defunct car dealership in the heart of the city. Andrew Culhane, chief strategy officer at Torc, my main guide during the day, told me that although Amazon has a presence in Albuquerque, the main draw as an autonomous test center was its geography, weather, and road network, which are ideally suited to test self-driving trucks.
“Running trucks here gives us the opportunity to test them in an interesting and challenging environment,” Culhane told me. “We have both Interstates 25 and 40 meeting here. And there are very interesting traffic patterns here with different road conditions that allow us to test our trucks in difficult real-world driving conditions. We can run tests locally, as well as make longer autonomous runs over to Texas. A recent news article cited Albuquerque as having the sixth worse traffic in the country. And that’s what we wanted when it comes to developing our autonomous technology to ensure that it can one function seamlessly in real-world trucking operations.”
Culhane said Torc has settled on the middle-mile, long-haul and over-the-road segments as its initial target markets for the autonomous trucks it is developing. He added that while the process may seem slow from the outside, he is pleased with the progress Torc and its industry partners are making.
“The Lidar technology is evolving at the right pace,” Culhane said. “So, too, are technologies like long-range radar systems and the vehicle computing platforms from Nvidia. So, we are seeing the tech pieces of the puzzle coming together as we refine the operational design domain for these trucks.”.
The basic challenge, Culhane said, is developing an autonomous truck that can perform as well as a human does behind the wheel.
“The professional drivers we have today are really very good at what they do,” he said. “Often, I think the technology we’re developing is seen as some sort of indictment of truck drivers. And it’s not. The numbers don’t lie: There are a lot of very good human commercial drivers out there today. But there aren’t enough of them now. And there aren’t going to be enough in the future. So, we’re leveraging technology here to help solve a problem and make life easier for both drivers and fleets. And that’s exactly what technology is supposed to do.”
But getting autonomous control systems to the point where they can drive as well as human drivers is a tough assignment. “Humans are very good at intent prediction,” he explained. “That’s the ability to look over a dynamic driving environment and pick up on subtle cues that hint at what another human driver is about to do. That’s tough for a computer to do. And we don’t want to try and program a truck so that it’s trying to outsmart human drivers. We want an autonomous truck that can deal with those situations as easily as a human driver does.”
On the other hand, in some areas, autonomous vehicle systems excel in ways human drivers find difficult — or simply cannot match.
“Autonomous trucks are never in a hurry,” Culhane said. “And they never get angry or annoyed. They don’t get impatient. And they don’t get tired or have to worry about hours of service. Thanks to these characteristics, we’re going to be able to design an autonomous system that is a lot more conservative in nature than a human driver sometimes is. And that will have significant advantages for safety, efficiency, and maintenance in fleet operations.”
With our initial briefing out of the way, Culhane and Klara Oberhollenzer, technical product director for mission control and logistics integration, Daimler Trucks and Torc Robotics, gave me a quick tour of the Torc Test Center.
Downstairs, the old showroom floor has been transformed into a Mission Control Center where a team of specialists watches over every aspect of the daily test runs.
Torc is running 12 second-generation Freightliner Cascadia tractor-trailers on daily runs in, around, and out of the city. Each truck is watched over by a Mission Control specialist in real time, who works in conjunction with Torc engineers, as well as an onboard team of an “in-vehicle fallback test driver” behind the steering wheel and a “safety conductor” riding shotgun in the passenger seat. The sleeping berths, closet space, and other driver amenities have been cleared out of the sleeper in favor of a tabletop and two passenger seats, which allow Torc engineers (and an occasional magazine editor) to go along for a ride and observe things for themselves.
The Mission Control aspect of the operation is particularly interesting because Culhane, Oberhollenzer, and Fleming all feel that this will be a common job at fleets in the future, with many former drivers using their experience and expertise to track, monitor, and assist an assigned number of autonomous trucks as they go about their routes during the day and at night.
“The customer is going to remain a priority for fleets, even with autonomous trucks,” Culhane explained. “So, I’m a little skeptical about the idea that trucks will use digitized freight systems to find loads to haul on their own. I think human input, experience, planning and customer service is going to place a premium on having humans in control and managing these assets to make sure they perform at their full potential, and deal quickly with any of the numerous challenges, problems and emergencies they will undoubtably encounter as they go about their day.”
Outside, in a vast parking lot that’s ideally suited for staging and maneuvering 53-foot tractor-trailers, Culhane introduced me to Paul, who would be in the driver’s seat today, and Garren, who would be assisting him from the passenger seat. (Last names withheld upon Torc’s request.)
Culhane and I climbed into the back of the sleeper and buckled in while Paul and Garren run down their checklists ahead of our hour-long drive out of Albuquerque, heading east on I-40. Our goal today would be to take the truck down into, and back out of, Sedillo Canyon on the edge of the city, exit and return to the Torc Test Center.
Safety permeates every aspect of operations at the Torc Test Center. So, Culhane explains, Paul would drive the truck through the city streets right up to the point that it entered the freeway onramp, at which time he would turn control over to the truck itself.
During the drive, Paul worked in a strange sort of Twilight Zone with his hands on the steering wheel at all times, watching the road and his surroundings, aided by Garren to his right. It’s a lot like how the copilot in an airplane often puts his or her hands on the controls, following the command pilot’s movements, ready to instantly take over should something happen.
Paul told me this is a physically and mentally demanding job. Although he’s not actually driving the truck, he can’t simply mentally check out, either. He has to be ready to take over instantly if there’s a problem. In fact, the Torc autonomous system is designed so that if Paul, or any other driver, puts any positive input into the steering wheel, brakes or accelerator, it instantly disengages and hands full control of the truck over to them.
“There’s really not much to do, because the truck is in control and does a great job,” Paul said. “But you can’t relax. You have to stay focused on the drive the entire time without actually doing anything.”
Garren’s role in the right-hand seat is to serve as an extra set of eyes on the road and as a safety sounding board to help Paul quickly ascertain any problems or tricky situations that arise during the drive and settle on a course of action – usually a simple “Yes” or “No” mutual decision to either leave the truck under autonomous control or let Paul take over to negotiate whatever the problem or issue is.
What the Truck 'Sees'
One of the more striking displays in the sleeper is a series of display screens that show various views around the truck coming in from the sensors arrays that are constantly gathering data during the drive. These complement various screens Paul and Garren have in the front of the truck and include the usual front, side and rear camera views.
But most interesting to me was the largest display screen in the back. This was a medium-sized flat screen TV that displayed all the information from every sensor on the truck — lidar, radar and all the camera systems — to show exactly what the truck can “see” and track during its drive.
The view was amazing. The lidar systems, for example, are detailed enough to pick up, 3D-map, and display not just cars and trucks on the road, but also buildings, overpasses, boulders, traffic signs, trees, bushes, fence posts, and even mile marker posts. The detail is so fine that in some cases, you can make out individual branches and even leaves on trees. Culhane explained that the lidar sensors, in particular, are actually more powerful than what can be seen on the screen, but that the engineers have to dial the resolution back to a point that the human eye can make sense of all the data being displayed.
Another interesting point are color-coded lines to either side of the truck, which give an at-a-glance status on lane-change availability. Sensors on the truck “look” about 350 meters ahead, and 250 meters behind, to track traffic in real time and confirm if a lane-change is safe.
On the Road
Once we hit the on ramp to I-40 East, Paul turned control of the truck over to the autonomous guidance system as promised. The only sign that anything had changed were blue-colored accent lights coming on in the forward roof area over the driver and passenger seats. The truck accelerated smoothly on its own, and effortlessly merged over to the left into the main traffic lane, eventually taking the center and accelerating up to 64 mph.
Mid-morning traffic was moderate with a few choke points that the truck handled without a hitch. Up front, Paul and Garren talk back and forth constantly, discussing traffic and calling out potential problems. At one point, we came upon a stalled 18-wheeler and a two truck off to one side of the road. Culhane told me that the Torc safety protocols during a drive require a human to take control of the truck if a stalled vehicle is in an adjacent lane. In this case, however, Paul and Garren quickly compared their takes on the situation, agreed that the stalled truck was two lanes over on the side of the road, and allowed the Cascadia to continue on its way under its own control.
About a half hour into the drive, we came to our turnaround point at Sedillo Canyon. The truck handled both the descent down into the canyon and the climb out easily. For a passenger in the back, it’s virtually impossible to determine if Paul or the computers are in control during the drive. In fact, the vast majority of cars and trucks running along the road beside us were blissfully unaware that they were sharing the road with an autonomous truck. As far as I can tell, no one so much as looked at as twice during our drive. We were just another big rig running down the road.
When my ride was done, Fleming and Culhane both asked me my impressions. And, truthfully, I told them the word I was tempted to use was “boring.” But then said that perhaps “uneventful” would be a better word.
Either term was fine with them, they said, laughing. Because, as amazing and capable as all the technology on an autonomous truck is, “uneventful,” “safe,” and yes, even “boring,” are exactly the kind of performance parameters Torc is looking to perfect for real-world use of its technology.
Editor’s note: Watch for additional coverage from HDT’s exclusive Torc visit, including video and an interview with Torc CEO Michael Fleming.