In January Daimler Trucks boss Martin Daum promised to have level 4 autonomous trucks on the road within a decade. Two months later, confirming his commitment, Daimler purchased a majority stake in self-driving vehicle company Torc Robotics.
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 and he had a few questions for them:
Will: Why is all the development work for autonomous trucks on the road happening in the USA instead of Europe?
Peter Schmidt: The US offers us unique opportunities for testing. The sheer size of the country – 3,000 miles coast to coast without any borders – lots of areas free of snow, a really strong economy and plenty of talent too. Also, there are more homogenous traffic flows. Trucks are allowed to travel as fast as cars here, whereas in Germany it is a nightmare. The differential speeds are huge, with trucks running at 80km/h and passenger cars doing 200km/h. So, it was a conscious decision to start over here. Our customers here are big professional fleets, and they will be able to use this technology.
Will: What stage are you currently at?
Peter: We are in the phase of testing. We did a lot of testing on the track in Virginia together with Torc, and since September we have been testing on public roads. But it is a long journey. It is a marathon and not a sprint, and it will be a long time until we see this product on public streets as a commercial product.
Will: What sort of public reaction have you had?
Peter: Everything we do is totally safe. We have trained safety drivers and there is always two people in the truck. We did extensive testing on test tracks first. We tested high speed passing, merging from ramps, stopping for traffic jams and lost cargoes. We tested like hell before we went on to the public streets. We met with the Governor, with highway state police, and everything was really prepared, including emergency plans. In the event, nothing happened. I think the reaction was positive. You can always find something negative online of course.
Will: What was feedback from truck drivers?
Peter: We have had very little negative feedback from truck drivers. You need to be realistic. This technology won’t be here in three years from now and transform the industry overnight. The product we are developing will take a decade. You might see some pilots a little earlier, but they will be confined to specific areas.
Remember this is level 4 and not level 5. These trucks won’t be able to drive anywhere at any time. There will be a good manageable transition. It will be our job to really explain what this technology can do and what its limits are. Then people will realise that the impact on jobs will be far less dramatic than they think.
Michael Fleming: This is disruptive technology that won’t be deployed overnight, and we are going to take a slow methodical approach to it. Part of the approach is understanding what the customer requirements are, and how we deploy this technology and balance safety, cost and performance. There is a great deal of excitement and fear over this technology, and part of our roll-out is educating the public as to what this technology is capable of, and where the limitations are.
Will: Within a decade will you offer level 4 long haulage trucks that are able to go from hub A to hub B, autonomous trucks on the road?
Michael: Within 10 years we will be deploying self-driving trucks hub-to-hub on interstate and highway operations. It makes a great deal of sense. The business case is there. It is a much simpler problem than driving in urban environments. And the US is dealing with a shortage of 100,000 drivers, which is expected to grow. But truck drivers do much more than just drive.
Peter:That is an important point. The drivers will play an important role – first mile, last mile, customer interface, handling of the load.