Daimler Trucks has announced it is broadening a partnership with vehicle automation company Waymo, which was formerly known as the Google self-driving car project, as the global trucking giant looks to bring highly autonomous trucks to market.
The initial focus in the U.S. will be to combine a Freightliner Cascadia and the Waymo Driver system, creating a truck with Level 4 autonomous capabilities.
Such controls mean the truck itself will be able to perform all driving functions under defined operating conditions.
The global partnership will explore opportunities with other markets and vehicles as well.
“For me that is a historic moment when the best in trucking manufacturing combines the best with software,” said Martin Daum, chairman of the board of management of Daimler Truck AG, during a related press briefing.
This isn’t Daimler’s only venture in the autonomous vehicle space.
Daimler Trucks acquired a majority stake in Torc Robotics about a year ago, and has already promised to produce highly automated vehicles within a decade, however the new Waymo partnership does not involve acquiring a stake in the business.
Martin Daum referred to the separate Waymo and Torc Robotics initiatives as a “dual strategy approach” that will help to accelerate development efforts.
And there is still development work to complete.
One of the existing barriers to developing an autonomous truck is the need for redundant steering, braking and powertrain controls, said Waymo CEO John Krafcik.
“On the heavy truck side, the Class 8 side, these components do not exist today,” he said. “That’s going to be one of the primary gating items for bringing this technology to the world.”
The partnership with Waymo reinforces to suppliers that Daimler is committed to bringing a Level 4 truck to market, said Daimler Trucks North America president and CEO Roger Nielsen.
While the announcement means there are now two distinct autonomous vehicle initiatives, Daimler offers customers distinct choices in powertrains and transmissions, he added.
The OEM has been showcasing the potential of automated commercial vehicles since 2014, when it demonstrated the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck, and the following year when it brought the Freightliner Inspiration Truck to Nevada.
Many of those underlying technologies emerged in the Level 2 capabilities of Detroit Assurance 5.0, such as the lane-keeping assistance available on today’s Freightliner Cascadias.
Meanwhile, the recently formed Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group is setting up a new test center in Albuquerque, NM, in the southwestern region of the U.S. that has become a hotbed of such experiments.
It’s the region where the early Waymo-related truck research will be conducted as well.
Waymo itself has been developing autonomous vehicle technology for 11 years, and is now deploying the Waymo Driver for tests in Phoenix, Ariz.
It began working with commercial trucks in March 2017. A pilot project in 2018 saw hundreds of runs completed to and from Google’s data centers in Atlanta, Ga.
The company has also announced that it’s working with Fiat Chrysler to develop Class 1-3 autonomous commercial vehicles, initially integrating the software into the Ram ProMaster van.
While most of Waymo’s experience has focused on lighter vehicles, Krafcik stressed that the new trucking venture does not represent a “pivot” away from other work.
“This is not a Covid-driven change to our plan,” he said, responding to a related question. Although, he acknowledged that during Covid-19 people have been relying more on deliveries than they have in the past.
There are opportunities to leverage the lessons from work on autonomous cars, he added.
“It turns out there’s a lot of synergies between driving in cities and driving big trucks.”
Admittedly, there are also differences to address. Krafcik offered the example of longer stopping distances, and how those will tax a vehicle’s long-range perception.
But Waymo clearly has a long-range view for the technology.
Said Krafcik: “We’ll be in Europe and other markets as well.”