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For the “middle-mile” use case between two freight hubs, Torc’s Virtual Driver takes over the entire dynamic driving task in the autonomous-ready Freightliner Cascadia. (Daimler Truck)

Daimler Truck and Torc intensify pursuit of autonomous trucks

The OEM has established a clear roadmap that brings SAE Level 4 trucks to the U.S. market by 2027.

Several autonomous-truck startups faltered in 2023. Another blow to the sector came in December, when TuSimple laid off about 150 employees, or 75% of its U.S. workforce, as it winds down operations in the States. The company will focus its development and deployment efforts to the Asia-Pacific region. Few self-driving truck startups remain, among them Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Aurora Innovation and Kodiak Robotics, headquartered in Mountain View, California.

Established OEMs such as Volvo’s Autonomous Solutions unit and Daimler Truck, however, continue to view autonomous trucking as a transformative opportunity to bolster the transportation industry. Those benefits are expected in the next few years, according to Joanna Buttler, Daimler Truck’s head of Global Autonomous Technology Group. Its goal is to bring SAE Level 4 autonomous trucks to the U.S. market by 2027.

Buttler leads all aspects of the company’s global autonomous-technology strategy including strategic partnerships. A partnership with Waymo took a hit in July 2023 when the startup announced that it was stepping back its autonomous trucking development to focus its efforts and investment on ride-hailing applications. But Waymo’s co-CEOs confirmed that it would continue to advance a “redundant chassis” being developed in collaboration with Daimler Truck North America (DTNA).

Buttler also oversees Daimler Truck’s independent subsidiary Torc Robotics, which is focused on developing SAE Level 4 autonomous technology. In a December blog post, Buttler wrote that “in the not-too-distant future, goods will be transported over hundreds of miles by a software-controlled truck, without a driver behind the steering wheel.” The targeted use case is hub-to-hub highway driving, from which the loaded trailer is recoupled to a human-operated truck for delivery to its final destination.

“Trying to deploy this technology in all segments, all at once, is not feasible,” Buttler said. “Those who have tried, have pivoted to focus and prioritize the deployment to a singular, initial use case.”

She noted that autonomous tech will help to compensate for the driver shortage, which is expected to increase to 160,000 by 2030. “Humans continue to play a critical part in the supply chain where they matter the most – in the last-mile delivery; in overseeing and managing the autonomous fleet; in the interaction with other humans; and in decisions and tasks that require a high degree of emotional intelligence,” Buttler wrote.

“Torc has been testing autonomous-ready Freightliner Cascadia trucks in real-world applications with our freight customers for quite some time now,” Buttler said, including a route from Phoenix, Arizona, to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She anticipates an autonomous transport network to be gradually built up in the Southwest, “followed with successive expansion and eventually leading to the widespread deployment of autonomous truck routes across the entire U.S.”

Market and growth opportunities
Daimler Truck and Torc began working together in 2019 to advance autonomous-truck development, and the fruits of that collaboration have come to bear in recent years. “Torc has demonstrated that its autonomous driving software [Virtual Driver] can safely maneuver highways, surface streets, ramps and turns at controlled intersections,” Buttler said. “We have come a long way, but there is still a lot of testing and development work ahead of us. Safety will determine market readiness.”

Redundant vehicle systems are necessary for safe SAE Level 4 autonomous operations. “With 1,500 technical requirements, all translated into features and a second set of electronically controlled systems such as steering, braking, power network and more, our autonomous-ready Cascadia sets the industry standard for autonomous systems integration,” Buttler said. “We are the first in the industry to offer a scalable, powertrain-agnostic redundant autonomous vehicle platform.”

The second technical component is the autonomous driving system (ADS), she noted. “Torc uses several disciplines of artificial intelligence to sense the environment and to make autonomous driving decisions. For example, when it comes to perception, their AI capabilities help to detect and classify objects in challenging conditions such as low light, fog or bad weather.”

DTNA integrates Torc’s Virtual Driver into the trucks, which will continue to undergo what Buttler calls rigorous testing and validation processes – both in simulation and the real world – to ensure the safety and performance of all systems prior to market launch in 2027.

“We see promising market and growth opportunities for Daimler Truck, generating recurring revenue through offering a driver-as-a-service subscription model for our fleet customers,” she said. “It works similar to what you know from streaming providers: the product is developed once and then scaled over many customers and units – in our case, autonomous trucking miles.”

Unlocking critical insights
The truck maker is working with early adopters in the freight industry such as Schneider Inc. and C.R. England to run autonomous pilots in the hub-to-hub model. “It is essential that autonomous solutions are developed together with the customer from the start,” Buttler said.

In December, Torc Robotics also announced a partnership with Uber Freight to leverage the company’s logistics network, which represents $18 billion in active freight under management and more than 100,000 digitally enabled carriers. The goal is to “unlock critical insights and learnings” that will inform Torc’s autonomous freight network design and expansion strategy. These insights include which lanes are optimal for deployment, how to prioritize the rollout of lanes and various ODDs (operational design domains), balancing supply and demand across supply chains with autonomous trucks, and the management of autonomous loads with transfer hubs.

Buttler’s conclusion: “I am convinced that autonomous trucks will enhance everyday life. This technology will become reality within this decade [and] has the potential to transform the transportation industry.”

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