Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) has briefed American journalists on the status of the company’s efforts and its new collaborations with both Torc Robotics and Waymo  on autonomous vehicles.

DTNA’s Autonomous Vehicles director and project leader Anika Friesinger briefed the media at the company’s test facility at Madras on the high plains of Oregon  this week noting the company is now refining its second-generation autonomous truck, based on its current new Cascadia Class 8 on-highway prime mover.

Two recent versions of the autonomous Cascadia trucks were on display at the company proving grounds, and both provided hints as to how this emerging technology will change truck designs in the coming years.

Most noticeable on the trucks were large, front bumper assemblies – similar to aluminium bull bars and some circular lidar clusters mounted above the cab doors on both sides of the cab.

The  assemblies house an array of cameras, as well radar and lidar systems that feed operational telemetry to the truck’s on-board computers, as well as the Detroit DT automated transmission.

This close-up of the cab-mounted lidar assemblies on the Cascadia autonomous truck show the array of sensors located to the front, rear, and bottom of the cluster.

The reality is  that automated transmissions have become the “brains” of a modern trucks, and autonomous technology has taken the capabilities of these vehicle systems to levels of data management and operational commands that were unimaginable a few years ago.

As Daimler engineers have learned more about the current capabilities and limitations of autonomous technology, Friesinger said that the company has moved to focus more on driver safety and freight efficiency as the main drives of its R&D efforts on the autonomous front.

“We believe that our recent developments, the advent of Level 4 autonomous technology will revolutionise how our customers operate Class 8 trucks in long-haul fleet operations,” Friesinger said.

“We have also come to understand that we need strong partners in order to bring this technology to market, which is why we began working with Torc Robotics one and half years ago and have since acquired a majority stake in that business,” she added.

“That partnership has paid off, helping us to develop many of the safety features found on these autonomous Cascadia trucks.”

Friesinger also pointed to DTNA’s ongoing partnership with Luminar one of the company’s new autonomous tech partners, which has played a key role in developing the lidar sensor clusters located above the Cascadia’s cab, as well as the onboard lidar systems and their integration into the vehicle’s powertrain and autonomous control system.

She also noted that the company’s new relationship with Waymo is quickly getting up to speed as well, and already bearing fruit in terms of refined vehicle control and safety systems.

“At all times, safety is our utmost priority, and that means that compared to other companies today, we are not always very aggressive in messaging when it comes to out latest developments,” Friesinger added. “

“That’s because we feel it is more important to have safe and reliable vehicle ready for fleets when technology is perfected.

“That is why you do not hear much from DTNA these days talking in terms of a timeline or years when this technology will become available,” she said.

“Our position is that autonomous technology must be safe and reliable before we will make an announcement along those lines.”

Talking to fleets to better understand their expectations and desires for autonomous trucks is also a major priority for DTNA’s autonomous trucks program, as well, Friesinger noted.

“We want to understand fully how this technology will fit into their businesses, and we are interested in both how they are moving freight today, which business models – hub-to-hub, for example – will be the prime candidates for autonomous trucks when they are ready for deployment in North America,” said Friesinger.

“So, there is quite a bit of evolution in our thought processes going on today as we work on this technology.”

“That evolution of thought is also occurring on the fleet/customer side of the equation as well.”

“Our customers are turning to us more and more now with questions about the future of autonomous technology and how they can prepare for it,” she said.

“For example, we are getting questions about that kind of trailers fleets should be buying today, and what features they should have, so they will be compatible with autonomous trucks when they do appear in the future.”

“It will take time before autonomous technology overtakes manual vehicle control and begins to move large volumes of freight,” she said.

“We have much to learn about how these systems perform in ice and snow, and how operations and infrastructure will adapt to deal with routine emergencies such as flat tires and pre-trip inspections.”

There is still much to learn, Friesinger noted. But, regardless of predictions and timelines, DTNA is convinced that autonomous technology will be a vital fleet management tool in the not-so-distant future – and that the company is determined to deliver systems that will help its customers move freight both more safely and efficiently when the technology is ready.