Daimler says automated trucks have huge potential, not only for trucking companies, but for society and the overall economy. - Photo: Waymo

Daimler says automated trucks have huge potential, not only for trucking companies, but for society and the overall economy.

Photo: Waymo


Daimler Trucks and Waymo are combining their expertise to advance the development of SAE Level 4 autonomous truck technology. The two companies have initiated a global strategic partnership that will combine Waymo’s automated driver technology with a unique version of Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia.

The two companies say they share the common goal of improving road safety and efficiency for fleet customers. The autonomous Cascadia, equipped with Waymo’s advanced AI driving system, the Waymo Driver, will be available to customers in the U.S. in the coming years. Waymo and Daimler Trucks will also investigate expansion to other markets, including Europe, in the near future.

Martin Daum, chairman of the board of management at Daimler Truck AG, said the strategic partnership with Waymo is an important step toward bringing production versions of highly automated trucks to the road.

“This is a historic moment, when the best in truck manufacturing meets the best in software, which is Waymo, and to combine the two forces,” he said Oct. 26 in an online media briefing. “We’re delivering what we call a redundant chassis that is able to be electronically driven to someone who can provide the software that makes that happen safely.”

Waymo is an autonomous driving technology company that started as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009. It put its first AI-powered Class 8 truck on the road in the spring of 2017. To date, Waymo says “World’s Most Experienced Driver,” the AI system referred to as the Waymo Driver, has driven over 20 million miles autonomously on public roads across 25 U.S. cities and over 15 billion miles in simulation.

“We have the highest regard for Daimler’s engineering skills and broad global truck product portfolio, and so we look forward to scaling the Waymo Driver, together with our new partner, to improve road safety and logistics efficiency on the world’s roadways,” noted Waymo CEO John Krafcik.

Calling the agreement an exciting moment in the journey towards self-driving trucks, Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO Roger Nielsen, said automated trucks have huge potential, not only for trucking companies, but also for society and the overall economy.

“The ever-rising demand for road transportation, fueled in part by all this e-commerce growth we are seeing, creates this great and compelling business case for self-driving trucks in the U.S.,” he said. “We’ve always said, our technologies must make a strong business case for our customers. We don’t innovate just for the sake of innovation. Our goal with autonomous driving is to push these engineering solutions that will increase safety and help our customers run their business more efficiently.

Building on Expertise

The partnership will see Waymo will bring its software, its sensing, and its AI processing capabilities to the table while Daimler brings its expertise in chassis engineering and the development of redundant safety systems like steering, brakes and powertrain controls. No such technology with mass production capability exists today, so Daimler’s tier 1 suppliers will be tasked with building it from the ground up.

Krafcik, whose own engineering background is in automotive chassis, understands the scope of the challenge.

“Steering and braking systems are some of the longest lead component items that we have in automotive and truck manufacturing,” he said. “These two companies coming together gives a strong signal to the tier one providers that yes, this is real. And [the partnership] is going to accelerate the pace of development of those components.”   

“I would never underestimate the difficulties we’ll have on the hardware, because ultimately, it has to perform at 100% without any fault,” Daum added. “I think it’s a good leverage and increase in efficiency if the two leading companies work together.”

Dual Strategy Approach

Daum twice mentioned a “dual strategy” approach of working with “two strong partners” to deliver autonomous L4 solutions, without mentioning the other half of the “dual,” which of course is Daimler subsidiary Torc Robotics. Daum declined to discuss the matter, saying, “The corporation [Daimler] is about the chassis, and not about the software. So I would say I don’t want to comment today on the software things in depth. On the chassis, we see a huge synergy to have the chassis for both virtual drivers.”

Responding to another question about the dual strategy, Neilson said as far back as the 1930s when Freightliner first started building trucks, the company had always offered its customers choices. “By having a dual-strategy approach where we’re working with Waymo and another company, we definitely give our customers that choice that they demand of us.”

HDT followed up with Daimler HQ for some clarification on the matter of Torc Robotics. They told HDT the company is developing a customized Freightliner Cascadia truck chassis with redundant systems that would enable the integration of the Waymo Driver. Meanwhile, the partnership with Torc enables full integration of the Freightliner Cascadia truck with Torc’s virtual driver, supported with an operations and network center to run automated trucks. This includes environment, infrastructure, and vehicle control center to manage the fleets.

“We are collaborating with our truck customers to ensure that our solutions match their (future) needs,” the spokesperson said. “Daimler Trucks’ and Torc’s integrated self-driving product will be designed for on-highway hub-to-hub applications, especially for long-distance, monotonous transport between distribution centers.

“Even though these are independent projects, our goal is to develop the best-in-class vehicle chassis for both virtual driver solutions and to target as much synergies as possible,” Daimler said.

Further, “Daimler Trucks will continue to be the face to the customers from a vehicle perspective; meaning our dealers remain the contact to the customers when it comes to selling trucks and our fully-integrated solution with Torc’s virtual driver. As a technology provider for fleets Waymo is partnering with OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers to make trucks available with the Waymo Driver, like ours, and provide their Driver-as-a-Service to fleets who then operate those L4 trucks.”

The Development Timeline

In another press briefing six weeks earlier, Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of Daimler Truck’s Autonomous Technology Group, said the goal of the work with Torc was to bring “highly automated” SAE Level 4 trucks into commercial production “within the decade.” The collaboration with Waymo might shorten that timeframe, but nobody on the call would commit to a date.

Daum described the Level 4 space as completely uncharted territory. He said it was like the old ages of discovery, when explorers set out to discover the New World. “You never know where you will end and what you will experience,” he said. “There will be some positive surprises and some negative surprises. … This isn’t like an ordinary development where you know exactly when you started and in 37 months from now you start production.”

Neilson said Daimler would not release a vehicle for Level-4 operation until it was absolutely convinced that it is safe to operate. “There’s millions of miles of testing, both simulated and in real life yet, that we would we need to drive through to get to the point where we are convinced that we have this solution properly designed and developed,” he said.

Krafcik said he expects the development time for the redundant systems and getting the mass production tools up and running will be considerable, but seemed to suggest that Waymo is already at the table and comfortable with its position.    

“This is an application of existing technology. It’s a different application, but the level of invention required from our side is really quite low,” he said. “It’s taken us 11 years and billions and billions of miles of experience to get to where we are today. So, for us, it’s a much more solvable space. It’s relatively straightforward application of our technology.”

Technology Rollout

When the trucks are finally up and running, initial deployment will likely be in the southwest, where Waymo already has operations underway. It’s already operating in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California, and there is lots of logistics traffic in the region. The company already has operational bases in Texas, Phoenix, and throughout California. Future plans include other regions of the U.S. as well as Europe and other markets.

Looking way out, Krafcik said Waymo plans to unlock a full suite of driving capabilities not just highway driving, but full hub-to-hub capability including the ability to navigate very complicated city environments.

“You’ll see us with time unlocking all this capabilities,” he said. “We’re starting out now, as good L4 developers do, with easier domains and focusing first on pure highway driving. But we are developing those capabilities to be fully able to take the load from the point where the load gets loaded to the point where it is discharged.”

There was no word on the size of the development fleet, but Krafcik did say the fleet would be large enough to service the needs of Waymo’s customers.

 





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