Daimler In North America  has announced its  tie up with US automation company Torc Robotics will see them open a new testing centre in New Mexico to help bring self-driving trucks to U.S. highways by the end of this decade.

Like many industries the Daimler/Torc Robotics program has suffered  delays as a result of  the Covid-19 pandemic, however the companies resumed public road testing of autonomous trucks in June as they work to develop the software or virtual driver for the vehicles.

Daimler has also said it is working on a heavy-duty truck chassis solely for autonomous driving, which will include redundant systems to bolster safety.

Daimler took a majority holding in Torc Robotics, last year, partnering the company with Daimler’s Autonomous Technology Group, which is charged with commercialising autonomous driving.

The German automaker wants to develop and build Level 4 autonomous trucks which will perform all driving tasks and monitor surroundings for hazards. Essentially, the robotic system would do all the driving in most circumstances, but a driver would still be able to control the vehicle if needed.

Daimler and Torc announced a broad timeline for rolling out Level 4 autonomous trucks, with executives from both companies talking about having the technology commercially ready by the end of this decade and added that they expect to launch pilot programs with customers on some trucking lanes where factors such as regulation, road conditions and mild climate allow an earlier timetable.

Daimlert says the goal is to develop trucks that operate in a hub-to-hub network, where the vehicles would leave depots or distribution centres that have easy highway access, free of the complexities of navigating a truck through urban areas.

The trucks would be manoeuvred onto the highway and then drive autonomously for hundreds of kilometres autonomously before reaching another hub close to the highway. Daimler believes  that human drivers would then operate smaller trucks for ‘first and last mile’ freight in the network where routes are more complex, with higher traffic environments.

Daimler and Torc are focusing on freight operations because the goal of creating a fleet of robo-taxis that would replace or supplement individual driving has proved elusive, said.

Peter Vaughan Schmidt, head of the Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group says there’s an increasingly clear business case for applying autonomous technology to freight movement.

“Freight demand is increasing and autonomous driving could relieve regulatory limits on human driving, and it will improve safety,” Schmidt said.

US federal safety data reveals that  human error causes more than 90 per cent of automotive crashes in the U.SA.

“One of the things that I’ve seen in the self-driving space over the last 18 or 24 months is there has been this tectonic shift from the robo-taxi market into trucking,” said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics.

Fleming said one of the hurdles autonomous trucking still faces is a lack of adequate hardware to make the vehicles commercially viable.

“It has to meet the performance specifications to address not only safety, but ensuring that we can drive efficiently to the destination and deliver goods and in a timely fashion and it also must be cost-effective,” he said.

“Daimler is pushing suppliers “to push the envelope” on radar, LiDAR – light detection and ranging sensors – cameras and computer systems to speed development,” he said.

Fleming compared the commercialisation of autonomous trucks to cell phone service.

“At first, phones were the size of bricks and worked in limited areas, but they shrank in size and coverage areas expanded,” said Fleming.

“At the same time, they advanced technologically to the point where they are now ubiquitous pocket computers that people use nearly everywhere,” he added.

Schmidt said the self-driving truck adoption curve will start low and then grow significantly as fleets gain experience and the economics become favourable.