Following a commitment by Global Truck boss, Martin Daum, the following couple of months saw Daimler buying into a self-driving vehicle company, Torc Robotics a company with the professed aim of introducing disruption in the truck industry.
The company was founded in 2005 by a group of students from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. It initially concentrated on automation for farming, mining and military, but moved into self-driving cars two years ago. Although Daimler acquired a majority stake in Torc Robotics earlier this year, it retains its name, staff and identity.
At last month’s North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta, Diesel News’ European Correspondent, Will Shiers, had the opportunity to catch up with president and CEO of Torc Robotics Michael Fleming, and head of autonomous technology group at Daimler Trucks Peter Schmidt. Here is the second section of the interview transcript.
Will: Why did Daimler choose Torc Robotics?
Michael Fleming: I think we both selected each other in this process. There are a couple of different reasons behind the decision. Torc is not a start-up. We have already been operating on public roads with level 4 vehicles. We have always taken a long-term approach and focussed on solving problems where there is a sound business case. We thought that the on-road hub-to-hub business case was strong, so we went out to the OEMs in the trucking space and we really found a cultural fit with Daimler.
Torc is a pioneer of self-driving technology, Daimler is a pioneer and inventor of the combustion engine and the truck, so our long-term approach to solving problems and creating impact was well aligned. A lot of companies try to solve very difficult problems overnight. But in our opinion this is a marathon and not a sprint.
I along with a handful of other students started Torc with the purpose of commercialising this technology. We were definitely ahead of our time, and we really look forward to working with Daimler to create the greatest disruption in the trucking industry since the advent of the truck itself.
Will: Who is responsible in the event of an accident?
Michael: Right now, Torc is focussed on ensuring that the truck doesn’t get into an accident. Safety is first and foremost. We are going through different scenarios and challenges that trucks face on the road.
The big challenge we have is what we call bad actors, cars and other vehicles doing things that they shouldn’t do. If everyone obeyed the rules of the road this is actually a fairly simple problem to solve. But what happens when you don’t just have one bad actor, but a cluster of bad actors?
One of things I appreciate is that Daimler is the market share leader. It means we are able to capture all those lessons learned, and the knowhow of the problems truck drivers face. Being able to take that back and look systematically at scenario A and B, deciding what a truck should do in scenario A and B to be safe, is invaluable.
Will: What do you need from legislators to get the green light for an autonomous truck?
MF: In the US we have federal legislation and we also have state legislation. Daimler has a group of folks working with legislators at the federal and state level. What we are appreciative of is that the legislators are not moving forwards too aggressively.
They are reaching out to organisations like Daimler and saying things like ‘help us to understand what the capabilities and limitations of this technology are so we can devise legislation that makes sense’. We are still in the early stages of legislation, but it is an industry/government partnership to roll out the right legislation at the right time.
Will: Will we ever lose the steering wheel?
Michael: I don’t think we will. But I have learned to never say never.
Peter Schmidt: What we are launching is a level 4 product, not level 5. Level 5 means running autonomously anywhere, and at any time. You can remove the seat, the steering wheel and the cabin. But with level 4 you need the driver as a back-up. And for the last mile and the first mile you always need drivers. This technology is not ready to be self-driving. It is not driverless.
Michael: The difference between level 4 and level 5, is that level 5 is outlined as being capable of driving in any situation. Hurricanes, or a foot of snow are very challenging conditions. For that reason, we may never remove that steering wheel. A driver will have responsibility to navigate in those challenging conditions.
Peter: We need to wait and see how this technology evolves, and how we deploy it to the market. There are a lot or options and opportunities, and they will grow over time.
Will: Are you even considering level 5?
Michael: We are targeting level 4. It makes the most sense. Based on the definition of level 5, you could argue that it is impossible.
Peter: Driving in a city in a semitrailer in fully autonomous mode, that is a really difficult problem, and why would you do it? There is no business case for it. Level 4 is a really hard nut to crack anyway, believe me!
Michael: Imagine if we apply the level 5 definition to a truck driver. Can a truck driver drive a truck in any condition imaginable? There we go!