Daimler to invest in a level 4 autonomous truck

Daimler is to invest $500m (£450m) to develop a level 4 autonomous truck, with a view to bringing it to market within a decade.

Speaking at the North American launch of the new Freightliner Cascadia, which has the same level 2 autonomy as the new Mercedes-Benz Actros, Daimler Trucks & Buses CEO Martin Daum said: “With the new Cascadia we have reached level 2, but now we plan to skip level 3 and target level 4 instead.”

He explained that with level 3, while drivers can take their hands off the steering wheel, they must always remain alert and be ready to take back full control at a moment’s notice. “This means higher technology cost and investment, without corresponding benefits for the customer,” he said.

With level 4 autonomy, the truck is in full control, and in some cases the driver may not even be present in the cab.

“The biggest inefficiency we have in this industry is that we have a very expensive piece of equipment that can be used only 10 hours a day. If the driver could sleep [while the truck drove] it would be a different story,” said Daum. “Highly automated trucks will offer a strong value proposition for customers. They will cut cost per mile considerably.”

But he acknowledged that highly automated driving “is no easy undertaking”, highlighting the technology involved. “It is very complex, it has to work accurately in every circumstance, and it must work for five years and 500,000 miles,” he added. He cited public acceptance and a regulatory framework as further challenges.

As part of the investment in autonomy, Daimler will add 200 employees, many based at its Automated Truck R&D Centre in Portland, Oregon. “We will initially have a regional focus in the US, and for good reason too,” explained Daum. “There is an excellent infrastructure, homogeneous traffic flow due to very similar speed limits for cars and trucks, and large distances.”

But he stressed that while the development will largely take place in North America, the technology will be shared across all of the truck brands. Daum said the initial focus will be hub-to-hub, on specific routes with wide lanes, away from urban areas, thus avoiding interaction with pedestrians and cyclists.

“It’s our aspiration to bring this technology to the road within a decade. But we want to put a level 4 [prototype] truck on the road this year. Stay tuned,” he said.


Daimler to pull plug on truck platooning

Daimler is to end truck platooning trials after real-world testing returned only minimal fuel economy benefits.

After thousands of miles of on-highway testing, Daimler has come to the conclusion that there is no viable business case for truck platoons, and while it remains committed to current projects, will not be embarking on any new platooning trials.

Making the announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Martin Daum (right), CEO of Daimler Trucks & Buses, said: “Platoons do improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency considerably in an ideal world, but not in real world traffic.”

He explained that under perfect conditions, coupling two or more trucks electronically at a distance of 15m apart has the ability to boost fuel economy by 4%. However, because of numerous external factors, including terrain and traffic conditions, perfect platooning occurs only 20% of the time. As a result, in real world conditions, the savings are closer to 1%, which he said does not make platooning a viable business proposition.

“Platooning is a lot of hassle, but we would go through that hassle if it meant a 4% fuel saving for our customers. However, it’s not worth it for just 1%.”
When asked whether he thought other truck makers would eventually come to the same conclusion, he said: “Yes. This isn’t a Daimler thing. It’s a simple law of physics.”

But Daum insisted that the several years of trials, which have cost an estimated €50m (£45m), have not been a waste of money, and that lots of things have been learnt. “Before we started, my biggest reservation about platooning was that it would be boring for the second driver, staring at the back of the truck in front,” he said. “But this was never actually a problem, because at 15m you still have good visibility.”

He added that the safety systems always worked perfectly, and were tested frequently “when car drivers made crazy manoeuvres”, forcing themselves between the trucks. “We also learned that drivers need to synchronise their peeing,” he laughed. “Because if a driver stops to pee now, you know the other will need to stop in 30 minutes.”

Daum said: “While we cannot see a business case for platooning, we will keep an eye on it, in case we have missed something. If that is the case, we can always ramp it up again.”