Torc Robotics, a subsidiary of Daimler Truck, is working on Level 4 autonomous systems that will permit trucks to operate without a driver behind the wheel.
The autonomous developer has partnered with Schneider National to test its trucks starting in 2023.
The trucks to be tested are SAE Level 4, which describes autonomous operation in geofenced areas without human driver input. It's the same SAE level employed by robotaxis currently being tested in a number of cities.
Driverless trucks are already being tested in real world traffic in Arkansas, shuttling between a Walmart warehouse and a store, with autonomous developer Gatik now testing its systems in Kansas as well. But these are relatively small box trucks based on Ford Transit chassis, with the trucks' autonomous technologies only having to worry about the dimensions of something barely longer than a large SUV.
But what about the other end of the truck size spectrum?
Autonomous developer Torc Robotics, part of Daimler Truck, is set to begin testing 18-wheelers after years of development, aiming to eventually bring about a world of long-haul trucks without drivers behind the wheel. The company has partnered with trucking company Schneider National on a pilot program that will test Level 4 trucks on the road with real freight.
"The next steps include system integration and day-to-day commercial operation pilots throughout 2023 and beyond," Torc Robotics noted. "The end goal of the effort is to hone the product trajectory into an industry-guided usable solution."
Schneider will provide freight loads for the autonomous developer's pilot operations, which are working toward commercializing autonomous trucks on long-haul routes.
"We see great potential for Torc’s autonomous technology to improve freight efficiencies while helping to lower cost,” said Rob Reich, Schneider executive vice president and chief administrative officer.
Level 4 autonomy offers the same capabilities as robotaxis used by GM's Cruise at the moment: They can operate without a driver behind the wheel but are confined to a finite number of pre-determined roads or a single geographic area. In the case of robotaxis this usually means certain parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. But in the trucking realm in practice it would usually mean highway routes between warehouses, scaled up from how Gatik is using its Level 4 trucks in the Midwest at the moment.
The aim is the same as with robotaxis: Allowing a company to use autonomous trucks with no one behind the wheel, thereby achieving cost savings.
At this point a future without truck drivers behind the wheel of 18-wheelers might seem to be just around the corner, but the reality (and the timeframe in which hundreds of thousands of jobs will disappear) is more complex.
For one thing, there are 50 jurisdictions in the US, each with its own set of laws regarding autonomous vehicle testing, some of them contradictory and most of them quite restrictive. Secondly, this autonomous utopia would still employ humans, albeit sitting in a remote room somewhere and monitoring a fleet of a dozen or so trucks simultaneously, handling their scheduling, fueling, and other tasks.
Like other Level 4 truck developers, Torc Robotics aims to make hub-to-hub driverless trucking a reality by the end of this decade, but it will still take a few years to get there, especially where tractor trailers are concerned. This means Torc is focused first on routes between warehouses a few hours from each other, rather than cross-country trucking that could take several days. But the technology being developed would eventually involve both types of routes.
Earlier this year, Torc Robotics opened a technology and software development facility in Stuttgart, Germany, not too far from Daimler Truck headquarters. The truck maker has held a majority stake in Torc since 2019, with the center in Stuttgart aiming to tap into the local engineering talent pool.
"Torc is working closely with Daimler Truck to optimize the entire product stack including the virtual driver, sensing and computer hardware, and the redundant chassis to be the first company to launch a scalable and profitable self-driving product," Torc Founder and CEO Michael Fleming said earlier this year. "Torc’s Stuttgart technology and software development center will leverage the deep automotive and trucking technical and product expertise to make this a reality."
The upcoming freight pilot program with Schneider, however, will be conducted stateside, with Torc also partnering with Penske Truck Leasing for maintenance service. Bit by bit, the pieces are coming together for extensive testing in real-world traffic and with real freight, with Torc and others believing that driverless trucks could be a regular sight on our roads in just a few years.