Daimler leapfrogs; driverless trucks edge closer

June 13, 2018

John Bendel

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Daimler is skipping a grade.

No, not in school, but in the unofficial levels of vehicle autonomy. Yet it’s much the same thing. Someone – in this case something – is coming up fast. Here, Daimler has publicly signaled its intent to make trucks as driverless as they can be.

That means Daimler, a savvy company, clearly sees a market for autonomous trucks. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have at least informal commitments to buy from some big players.

Daimler may or may not have started the current race for self-driving trucks, but they certainly ignited the fire of publicity that now blazes afresh with press releases from other developers at every opportunity – a cross-country run with a driver, a few miles on a country road without a driver, or a trailer load of beer from here to there.

Daimler started it four years ago with a demonstration in Germany where an autonomous Daimler truck rolled at 50mph past reviewing stands full of dignitaries and reporters as the driver read a newspaper – no hands on the wheel. They repeated the demo a few months later in a more spectacular event at the Hoover Dam.

Since then, while companies like Uber, Waymo, and Embark have held demonstrations of their own, Daimler has been quiet. That ended last week at an event called Daimler Trucks Capital Market and Technology Day held at Portland International Raceway in Portland, Ore.

The big news there was the introduction of two electric-powered Freightliner trucks. They also announced the opening of an Automated Truck Research and Development Center in Portland. So, despite a few quiet years, Daimler has clearly not lost interest in autonomous trucks. On the contrary.

Here’s where the grade skipping comes in. Both Truckinginfo.com and Portland Business Journal quoted Daimler’s head of truck strategy, Peter Vaughan Schmidt, who said that in its development efforts, Daimler intended to skip from Level 2 autonomy directly to Level 4. Forget about Level 3.

The five levels of autonomy:

  • Level 1 includes at least one element of vehicle control, say adaptive cruise control which controls speed, but that’s all. Big deal. We’re there already.
  • On Level 2 the system handles steering, braking, and speed. But you have to be behind the wheel, eyes on the road, ready to take control in an instant. What’s the point? You may as well be driving.
  • Level 3 enables the driver to look away from the road, maybe read the paper like that guy in Germany. The automated system will signal when you’re required back at the wheel with enough time to get there – you hope.
  • On Level 4 the truck drives itself on specific roadways under specific conditions. You can nap.
  • On Level 5 there is no you. The truck does it all alone.

Now Daimler says it’s taking its efforts directly from Level 2 to Level 4.

Seems to me Daimler was beyond Level 2 with its driver reading a newspaper at the wheel in 2014, so maybe the comment from Peter Vaughan Schmidt should not be taken literally. But it’s revealing nonetheless. Skipping Level 3 on a hypothetical scale doesn’t mean much. But saying so – even casually – in the context of Daimler’s new R&D center does.

Level 5 is unattainable for the foreseeable future. But if you think about it, Level 4 is pretty damned close – close enough to go commercial and make a lot of money. Being restricted to interstate highways in acceptable weather is not much of a restriction at all, certainly not for linehaul, and that’s where everyone expects autonomous trucks to make their commercial debut.

Yes, the Level 4 spec requires a driver, but that’s only in an informal framework, not in law. A Level 4 autonomous truck, by definition, can run linehaul without one. Daimler envisions its Level 4 truck with a driver, but big money and simple logic see something else.

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.