Many transportation industry leaders say that self-driving trucks will not arrive on American highways for at least another decade, but that assessment is not preventing vehicle manufacturer Daimler Trucks from announcing that it will launch a global organization for automated driving on June 1 and focus on the U.S. market.
Daimler's Autonomous Technology Group is a new, global and cross-divisional organization that is backed by a $570 million investment and headed by Peter Vaughan Schmidt, who is currently head of strategy Daimler Trucks.
The group has been charged with setting the company's overall strategy and implementation of its automated driving roadmap, including research and development as well as setting up the required operations infrastructure and network, heading towards the series production of highly automated trucks, known in the industry as SAE level 4.
With the formation of the Autonomous Technology Group, we're taking automated driving to #TheNextLevel. This new global organization brings together Daimler's worldwide expertise to develop the operations infrastructure required to put SAE Level 4 trucks on roads within a decade.— Daimler Trucks NA (@DaimlerTrucksNA) May 29, 2019
Autonomous vehicle technology has been advancing quickly in recent years, but most commercial applications are found in controlled environments such as warehouses or freight yards, marked by navigation beacons, wireless networks, and few pedestrians.
In contrast, operating on the open road carries a host of additional challenges. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, sets standards for the interface between human drivers and autonomous vehicles. On a scale from zero (no automation) to five (full automation), vehicles operating at Level 4 autonomy are "capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions," while the driver may still have the option to take control, the NHTSA says.
"With the Autonomous Technology Group, we are bringing together our global experts and their vast knowledge in automated trucking. 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.," Schmidt said in a release. "In doing so, we will work closely together with customers whose business matches this automated driving application. We will not only develop the respective technology but also set up the required operations infrastructure and network."
While the move may seem ambitious to industry observers, Daimler says that a more basic technology level, called Level 2 automated driving, is already in production. Daimler Trucks says it is the first manufacturer to put partially automated driving features into series production, featuring its Active Drive Assist (deployed in the Mercedes-Benz Actros and FUSO Super Great) and its Detroit Assurance 5.0 with Active Lane Assist (seen in the Freightliner Cascadia).
In past initiatives, Daimler Trucks North America LLC unveiled the country's first licensed autonomous commercial truck in 2015, demonstrating a self-steering 18-wheeler called the "Freightliner Inspiration Truck" and saying the technology could help reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption, cut highway congestion, and safeguard the environment.
"We are the pioneer for automated trucks. With the formation of our global Autonomous Technology Group, we are taking the next step, underscoring the importance of highly automated driving for Daimler Trucks, the industry and society as well," Martin Daum, member of the board of management of Daimler AG responsible for trucks and buses, said in a release. "With the new unit, we will maximize the effectiveness of our automated driving efforts and the impact of our investments in this key strategic technology. We will therefore be in the perfect position to put highly automated driving onto the roads, making transportation safer, saving lives and helping trucking companies boost their productivity."