PORTLAND, Ore. – Daimler Trucks has agreed to acquire a majority stake in automated vehicle company Torc Robotics, with the aim of commercially producing SAE Level 4 autonomous trucks within the decade.
Torc will retain its name, team, and Blacksburg, Va., location and will work closely with Daimler to advance autonomous truck capabilities.
“Bringing Torc Robotics within the Daimler Trucks family creates a unique and powerful team of innovators to put highly automated trucks on the road,” said Martin Daum, member of the board of management, Daimler AG, responsible for trucks and buses. “Daimler Trucks and Torc Robotics complement each other perfectly in terms of resources, expertise and skill sets. We are forming the ideal combination between Torc’s expertise on agile software development and our experience in delivering reliable and safe truck hardware.”
Torc will continue developing its Asimov self-driving software and testing, while Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) will focus on further evolving automated driving technology and vehicle integration for heavy trucks.
“Torc is not a start-up, but one of the world’s most experienced companies for vehicle automation,” said Roger Nielsen, CEO of DTNA. “Torc takes a practical approach to commercialization and offers advanced, road-ready technology, plus years of experience in heavy vehicles. Torc’s Level 4 system ahs been shown to operate well for both urban and highway driving in rain, snow, fog, and sunshine.”
DTNA said it also plans to continue working closely with Mercedes-Benz cars, specifically as it relates to sensor technology and operational aspects of vehicle automation.
Earlier this year, DTNA became the first truck manufacturer to announce the launch of an SAE Level 2 autonomous truck in the form of the new Cascadia with Detroit Assurance 5.0. The truck is capable of lane-keeping thanks to a steering gear and the fusion of radar and camera technologies.
Torc was founded in 2005 and employs about 100 people. Its self-driving systems have been installed on vehicles ranging from SUVs to 300-ton mining trucks. It has tested its on-road and traffic capabilities in more than 20 states without an accident.
On a conference call to discuss the investment, Daum said automated driving will be required to manage increasing global traffic volumes. “Our new partner will perfectly add to our own development efforts,” he said, noting the two companies will work exclusively on commercial vehicle automation, while also benefit from Daimler’s passenger-car experience at Mercedes-Benz.
Nielsen said the U.S. is the perfect market in which to develop automated trucks, thanks to its infrastructure, homogenous traffic flow and long distances. These trucks will first be deployed in hub-to-hub routes. But the timing of deployment remains vague.
Daum said it will take about two years for Daimler to determine when Level 4 automation will be rolled out commercially. He outlined a three-stage plan to get there: building a prototype for demonstration purposes; getting prototypes into customer hands for real-world testing; an d then finally, series production.
“My guess, at the moment, is that in two years, 2021, we will be able to give a complete timeline for that second and third step,” Daum said.
Nielsen reiterated that Level 4 automation doesn’t aim to replace the driver, even though the truck will be able to bring itself to a safe stop when necessary, without driver intervention.
“The driver does a lot more than just steer and push his foot on the brake and accelerator,” he said. “He’s also the customer service agent for the trucking company and is heavily involved in overall logistics planning.”
Instead of replacing the driver, the technology aims to simplify the driver’s life when operating between the shipping and receiving docks, Nielsen said.
He also said automation is something customers have been asking for.
“Customers are facing some serious problems in their business,” he said. “It starts with infrastructure on the road and definitely on the personnel side, with driver recruiting, training and retaining drivers as one of their top 10 problems today. As we go forward, they are looking for ways to make drivers more productive, safer, and ways to make the driving job more attractive to individuals across the country.”
Michael Fleming, Torc CEO, said the company began working with Daimler in the middle of last year and found they share very similar attitudes towards safety, society and automation.