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Daimler acquires Torc stake in autonomous truck journey

Posted: March 29, 2019 by John G. Smith

Daimler Trucks North America CEO Roger Nielsen and Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Daimler Trucks and Buses is building on its commitment to develop Level 4 autonomous trucks by acquiring a majority stake in U.S.-based Torc Robotics.

Torc Robotics retains its identity and personnel, and partners with the Daimler Trucks North America teams in Portland, Ore., where Daimler also operates its Automated Truck Research and Development Center.

“The market is ready for highly automated trucks,” said Daimler Trucks North America CEO Roger Nielsen. “The first step will be hub-to-hub, on certain routes.”

The early work will also focus on the U.S.

A first prototype to showcase the possibilities “might happen very soon”, said Martin Daum, member of Daimler AG’s board of management responsible for trucks and buses. But there’s no set timeline for broader production. “My guess at the moment is that in two years, early 2021, we are able to give a complete timeline.”

Daimler first unveiled its vision for autonomous trucks in the form of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck concept vehicle in 2014. The next year it showcased the street-legal Freightliner Inspiration Truck in Nevada. Daimler’s Level 2 autonomous controls – incorporating a mixture of automated braking and steering assistance — are available this year in North America’s Freightliner Cascadia, Europe’s Mercedes-Benz Actros, and Japanese Fuso trucks.

While the partially automated trucks rely on radar and a camera, higher levels of automated driving will require a few dozen sensors including Lidar, Daum said.

“Level 4 automation allows the vehicle to operate completely on its own, and if it finds itself in trouble the truck is designed to bring itself to a safe stop,” Nielsen said. But the vision still includes drivers in cabs because their work is not limited to time behind the wheel.

“With the ever rising demand for road transportation, not the least through e-commerce, there is a strong business case for self-driving trucks in the U.S. market and I believe the fastest path to commercialization for self driving trucks is in partnership with Daimler Trucks,” said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics.

He stressed the importance of working closely with an OEM, rather than facing a “firewall” between software and vehicle developers.

“We view it as a highly integrated system,” he said.

Torc has been working on autonomous vehicle software since competing in the 2007 Urban Challenge, supported by the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where teams were challenged to build a fully autonomous vehicle that could travel 95 km in less than six hours. The Ford Escape it developed for the challenge, dubbed Odin, placed third out of 35 teams.

Daimler says Torc’s Level 4 system has been shown to work in urban and highway settings, in rain, snow, fog and sunshine.

The Level 4 development process will focus on vehicles that could drive along existing highways, but also consider whether supporting infrastructure such as special lane markings are required at certain locations, Fleming said. “It’s always that balance between safety, performance, and always cost.”

Torc first reached out to Daimler in mid-2018.

“The potential for automating driving is just amazing,” Daum said. “Global transport volumes will continue to increase over the years and decades to come, and automated driving is an important lever.”

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