Daimler Trucks developing autonomous trucks

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After 2 comes 4

Hollywood classics like Smokey and the Bandit once conjured up the myth of the modern cowboy, hitting the highway at the wheel of a truck. But today, a driver shortage is threatening the performance of the transportation industry worldwide, and thus the logistical backbone of the global economy. And that’s just one of the reasons why Daimler Truck is now taking the wheel into its own hands – developing safe and highly efficient autonomous trucks.

In the late 1970s, all hell broke loose on the highways of America. In one of his best-known roles as the titular “Bandit”, Burt Reynolds smuggled 400 cases of beer across the country with his buddy “the Snowman”. Trucking was a dream job back then, and not just in the movies. The legend of freedom and adventure on the blacktop has changed in recent decades: While the volume of goods transported by trucks has grown inexorably, with the American Department of Transportation forecasting it to double again over the next 25 years, the logistics industry in the US – but also in Germany and many other countries – is facing a growing shortage of qualified drivers.

Level 4 trucks before the end of the decade

As a solution to this enormous challenge in the transportation industry, Daimler Truck is pushing the development of autonomous trucks (SAE Level 4) – keeping with the tradition of the company that, as the inventor of the truck, revolutionised the transport of goods 125 years ago. “With our Level 4 trucks, we want to lead the logistics industry into the future and make road transport safer for society as a whole,” says Peter Vaughan Schmidt, Head of Daimler Truck’s Autonomous Technology Group. “I am convinced that we as a company are in the best possible position and have the right partners on our side.” As the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, Daimler Trucks has bundled its expertise and activities related to automated driving in precisely this area. “I’ll never forget my first ride in one of our autonomous test trucks: In spite of some bad weather, our truck steered, braked and accelerated with a stoic composure, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The idea of someday using this technology as standard in our trucks immediately won me over.” The Autonomous Technology Group at Daimler Truck builds on valuable expertise from the Group brands at the development locations in Stuttgart (Germany), Madras, Portland and Albuquerque (all USA), and Bangalore (India). “Our goal is to produce autonomous Level 4 long-haul trucks in series before the end of this decade.”

Testing on the highway

In the southwest of the US, autonomous trucks have long since completed the intensive testing phase in laboratories and on closed-off test routes. They are already gaining key, real life experience on the highways. The solution, jointly developed by Daimler Truck and Torc Robotics, specialises in transit between distribution centres and is designed to set the benchmark for safety, reliability and cost per mile. All test runs include a development engineer monitoring the system and a certified, specially trained safety driver on board. The team made good use of the COVID-related restrictions on the trial runs, with great progress made in areas like software simulations. Now, for more than a year, the test truck teams have been reeling off mile after mile under strict safety and hygiene regulations. The tests stretched from Virginia, where Torc is headquartered, to New Mexico, a desert environment that presents the typical conditions under which the highly automated trucks will later be used by customers. And even better prototypes are already in the wings with more powerful sensors, higher computing power and better connectivity or cloud connection.

Partially automated driving already standard today

Daimler Truck has great expertise in the development of automated assistance systems. Mercedes-Benz Trucks presented the Future Truck 2025, the world’s first automated truck, back in 2014. In 2015, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck received road approval in the US as the first ever automated commercial vehicle. Today, partially automated driving functions based on highly sophisticated radar and camera systems come as standard. Daimler Trucks offers it ex works in its three main markets: as Active Drive Assist in the Mercedes-Benz Actros and the FUSO Super Great, and as Detroit Assurance 5.0 with Active Lane Assist in the Freightliner Cascadia. These active lateral and longitudinal guidance assistance systems can support drivers at all speeds, but drivers must maintain full control of their truck at all times in accordance with SAE Level 2 for autonomous driving.

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The focus is clearly on Level 4

Unlike in the passenger car market, where the DRIVE PILOT in the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class is making major improvements to comfort and safety for the first time with Level 3 in series production, the commercial vehicle developers are jumping straight from SAE Level 2 to 4. In this evolutionary stage, the automated driving system can perform all driving tasks in defined situations. A driver on board no longer needs to be able to intervene. “The intermediate step with Level 3 wouldn’t pay off for our logistics customers,” Peter Vaughan Schmidt explains. Unlike in cars, where the premium experience is a strong driver for the purchase decision, a truck has to be profitable as an operating expense. Schmidt’s strategic focus on Level 4 stems from truck customers’ strict view of total cost of ownership. Daimler Truck announced this step, which involves an investment of more than €500 million, for the first time at CES 2019 in Las Vegas.

Peter Vaughan Schmidt, Head of Autonomous, Daimler Trucks.
Peter Vaughan Schmidt, Head of Autonomous, Daimler Trucks.

For tough operating conditions

The requirements for autonomous driving differ considerably in passenger cars and trucks. The sheer size, high mass, demanding handling in curves or when braking, as well as the moving systems, such as those in articulated lorries – the technology in commercial vehicles has to cope with all of this. In addition, the operating conditions in the transport industry are much tougher. A truck covers a lot of mileage every day. Haulage companies expect high availability - even in difficult weather conditions or on bad roads. Only in this way can logistics providers ensure efficient, punctual delivery processes for their customers.

Safety through redundancy

Under these conditions, the evolutionary step to Level 4 is technically a quantum leap: The driving system must fully comprehend its surroundings, traffic, and vehicle situation and independently derive the necessary action and reaction therefrom – at all times, under all conditions, with absolute reliability. This requires significantly more sensors, and also more powerful ones. The computing systems and algorithms must also be capable of handling these huge amounts of information, with extreme demands on the quality of data processing. Just like in an aircraft, all safety-relevant functions in the autonomous truck are equipped with redundant systems, guaranteeing error-free operation even if individual components should fail. In addition to the sensors, the steering, brakes, communication systems and power supply are also built to be redundant. To this end, Daimler Trucks is internally developing a new generation of vehicles from scratch. The redundantly designed chassis is meant to set new standards, with over 1,000 new specifications included in the project requirements.

Great potential in partnerships

The testing and validation of safe autonomous commercial vehicles is complex. In light of these high demands, Daimler Truck recognised the potential of partnerships at an early stage. “Collaborations are a crucial part of our Dual Track Strategy, to get to our goal faster,” says Schmidt, the goal being offering two different products for autonomous driving. Customers can then choose the perfect solution for their specific requirements.

Like Daimler Truck, partners Waymo and Torc Robotics are also industry leaders and pioneers among the major players in autonomous driving technology.

Waymo’s goal as an autonomous driving company is to get people and goods to their destinations safely and easily. Since its launch as Google’s self-driving car project in 2009, Waymo has focused on developing the “world’s most experienced driver”. An autonomous Freightliner Cascadia equipped with the Waymo Driver is expected to be available in the US in the coming years.

Torc Robotics was founded more than 15 years ago by a group of young engineers from Virginia Tech, to use revolutionary technology to make driving safer and save lives. As one of the world’s most experienced companies in the field of automated vehicles, Torc Robotics now offers a fully comprehensive software solution for mobility applications. Working closely with customers, Torc is now focusing on developing a product specially optimised for long haul truck use.

When it comes to sensors, Daimler Truck relies on three technological systems: Radar, camera and lidar form the foundation for safety, precision and permanent availability. Lidar (light detection and ranging) is an important component in this triad, enabling precise object detection with infrared light pulses. That is why Daimler Truck is strengthening its technological expertise in lidar with a minority stake in Luminar Technologies Inc., the world’s leading provider of lidar hardware and software. Together with Torc Robotics, the Luminar technology will be integrated into the development of the Level 4 trucks and further optimised.

Testing next generation of level 4 trucks.
Testing next generation of level 4 trucks.

More than just driving

One thing is certain: The logistics industry – and with it the tradition-steeped profession of trucking – is facing profound change. Peter Vaughan Schmidt compares this development with the invention of the automobile: “Carriage drivers unhitched their horses and motorised their freight to reach their destination faster and with less stress. Our aim with autonomous trucks isn’t getting rid of drivers’ jobs, it’s making them more attractive.” Schmidt predicts a new job profile in long-distance transport: In a longer transition phase, manual and automated driving will permanently complement each other. Drivers behind the wheel can wait until the sections they’re more needed, primarily more urban stretches. The domain of Level 4 technology will be the long haul. However, humans will also play a central role there. For example, they can serve as the interface to the customer, organise logistics chains and take care of all cargo aspects, or monitor the autonomous trucks in the control centre.

Holger Mohn

would really like to take a seat in an autonomously driving experimental truck one day and leave everything else to the vehicle. He drove a truck himself in his younger days. Back then, “assistance systems” consisted of illuminated backup markers on the bumpers, a good sense of hearing, and an even better sense of feeling in one’s feet for double-clutching.

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