- Daimler Trucks has created an internal organization called the Autonomous Technology Group which will focus on getting level four autonomous trucks on the road within the next decade. The group begins operations on June 1 and will invest about 500 million euros ($556 million) to accomplish its goal, the company announced this week.
- The group will work on research and development covering the software and hardware needed by trucks to operate autonomously along with the infrastructure and networking needed for these vehicles to navigate the nation's roadways.
- "In the first stage, we will focus on use cases of highly automated driving in defined areas and between defined hubs in the U.S.A. In doing so, we will work closely together with customers whose business matches this automated driving application," Peter Vaughan Schmidt, who is currently head of strategy for Daimler Trucks and will lead this new group beginning next month, said in a statement.
While autonomous driving start-ups tend to get the attention, it will likely be these legacy manufacturers that actually bring autonomous trucks to market, according to Steve Viscelli, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, who has done research on the labor impacts of autonomous trucking.
"Daimler has been a leader in this area and will continue to be with this kind of commitment," Viscelli told Supply Chain Dive in an email. The influence of Silicon Valley startups has heightened the focus on autonomous vehicles at traditional manufacturers and in the logistics industry, where the technology presents a way to deal with "labor and regulatory issues that have dogged it for decades," he said.
As these traditional truck companies pivot to autonomous machines, though, it will require a shift toward more tech-savvy suppliers, he said. This is a process Daimler has already begun. The news of this new group comes almost two months after Daimler announced it was acquiring a majority stake in the software company Torc Robotics. The deal gave Daimler a team of software engineers focused on autonomous driving.
"Torc’s Level 4 system has been shown to operate well for both urban and highway driving in rain, snow, fog, and sunshine," CEO of Daimler Trucks North America Roger Nielsen said in a statement last March.
The march toward autonomous trucking at this point seems all but inevitable. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued advanced notices of proposed rulemaking earlier this month covering the agencies' plans to remove "unnecessary regulatory barriers to the safe introduction of automated driving systems" for commercial vehicles. FMCSA said it wants to acknowledge the differences of automated and human-driven trucks within its regulations, but didn't want to start from scratch to develop these new rules.
"We know that while many of these technologies are still in development, it is critical that we carefully examine how to make federal rules keep up with this advancing technology," FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez said in a press release emailed to Supply Chain Dive.
At least one autonomous trucking company is using the regulatory differences between autonomous and traditional vehicles to pitch its product. Embark's Head of Public Policy Jonny Morris said earlier this month that autonomous trucks won't have to worry about hours of service and will be able to make it across the country more quickly as a result.
But as the industry increasingly invests in autonomy it still relies on human drivers. While the FMCSA is seeking comment on autonomous driving, it is also asking for comment on lowering the driving age for interstate commercial driving from 21 to 18. How the heavy-duty trucking will balance its march toward autonomy while still needing to recruit human workers for the foreseeable future is a challenge the industry likely can't handle alone, Viscelli said.
"The development of self-driving trucks will have major impacts on truck drivers in the long-term and driver recruitment in the near term," he said. "That requires thought and attention sooner rather than later and we need leadership at the federal level to ensure that the costs and benefits are equitably shared."