Daimler Trucks has announced a major move toward series production of Level 4 autonomous vehicles with a majority stake acquisition of autonomous technology developer Torc Robotics. The company said the acquisition also signals a move that will make the United States the focus of its efforts to move from Level 2 autonomous truck technology to Level 4 systems sometime after 2021.
According to the American Society of Engineers, Level 2 autonomous driving technology is a system capable of taking full control of vehicle functions such as accelerating, braking, and steering, while the driver monitors the situation and is prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly.
Level 4 autonomous control allows for complete driver inattention to vehicle activity, with no no driver attention ever required for safety. The driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver's seat and only need resume control of the vehicle in areas with limited telemetry or under special circumstances, such as accidents or traffic jams. Outside of these areas or circumstances, the vehicle must be able to safely abort the trip and safety park the vehicle if the driver does not retake control.
During a global conference call on Friday, March 29, 2019, Daimler Trucks announced it is joining forces with Torc Robotics, a pioneer in autonomous driving solutions, in a “one-of-a-kind” collaborative effort to commercialize highly automated trucks (SAE Level 4) on U.S. roads. Going beyond a typical OEM/supplier relationship, the companies signed an agreement today for Daimler AG’s subsidiary Daimler Trucks and Buses Holding Inc., to acquire a majority stake in Torc Robotics for an undisclosed sum. Closing of the acquisition is subject to approval from U.S. authorities.
During the conference call, both Martin Daum, Member of the Board of Management Daimler AG, responsible for Trucks and Buses, and Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America LLC, announced the strategic move and noted that it coincides with a decision to make the United States the focus of the company’s research and development efforts of autonomous technology for commercial vehicles.
“We recognized early on the tremendous potential autonomous technology holds for commercial vehicles,” Daum said during the conference call with reporters. “Global transportation volumes will increase dramatically in the coming years and decades. And autonomous technology is vital for managing this growth in a sustainable and economical way. In order to meet these demands, Daimler Trucks is already in serial production of Level 2 automated systems with our Mercedes Actros tractor in Europe, our Freightliner Cascadia in North America, and our Fuso trucks in Japan. Partially automated trucks are state-of-the-art transportation technology today. And only we offer this technology in its current form today.”
Daum noted that Daimler laid down its autonomous vehicle strategy at CES in Las Vegas late last year, with an immediate goal of transitioning to serial production of Level 4 systems in the near future. “This will be a big leap for us in terms of technology,” he noted. “And in order for us to gain experience in this area as quickly as possible, we plan to begin operating Level 4 autonomous trucks on U.S. routes between major logistic hubs sing major highway systems. To do that, we are working with Torc, which has no tested its technology in more than 20 U.S. states on public roads with no accidents – and that includes a coast-to-coast trip under autonomous control that included runs through major cities such as Las Vegas with very busy traffic.”
“With over four million miles of public roads, here is a compelling case for self-trucing trucks in the U.S. with huge upside benefits for trucking companies, shippers and society as a whole,” said Nielsen, echoing Daum’s comments. “With our new partnership with Torc, we will be striving above all for safety as we work with them on developing an all-new truck chassis that will be perfectly suited for autonomous vehicle technologies.”
Under the agreement, Torc will remain a separate entity retaining its name, team, existing customers, and facilities in Blacksburg, Virginia. The partnership with Daimler Trucks will enable Torc to expand significantly its team, engage into the trucking market and service its growing customer base in other markets.
In addition to the partnership with Torc, Daum said Daimler Trucks will continue to work very closely across the Daimler Group for maximum synergies regarding automated vehicle technology. Specifically, Daimler Trucks is drawing on the activities and experiences of Mercedes-Benz Cars regarding sensor technology and operational aspects of vehicle automation.
“With the ever rising demand for road transportation, not the least through e-commerce, there is a strong business case for self-driving trucks in the U.S. market and I believe the fastest path to commercialization for self-driving trucks is in partnership with Daimler Trucks, the OEM market leader,” Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc, said during the conference call. “This move is in line with our mission of saving lives and represents another major milestone for Torc since crossing the finish line in the DARPA Urban Challenge 12 years ago.”
As part of the overall agreements, the Torc team will work closely with Daimler Trucks’ developers, particularly with the Research and Development team of Daimler Trucks North America in Portland, Oregon. Torc will continue to develop its Asimov self-driving software and testing at its Blacksburg facility. At the same time, DTNA will focus on further evolving automated driving technology and vehicle integration for heavy-duty trucks at its Automated Truck Research & Development Center in Portland. The DTNA team is working on a truck chassis perfectly suited for automated driving, particularly the redundancy of systems needed to provide the maximum level of reliability and safety.