Daimler doubles down on self-driving trucks, starts partnership with Waymo

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Customers who purchase tractor-trailers from Daimler Trucks have an array of choices in their powertrains and transmissions. Someday, they may have a choice of self-driving systems.

Daimler Trucks has embarked on a new partnership with Waymo, the self-driving technology company spun from Google, in which the two companies will jointly develop and deploy autonomous big rigs.

“We started building trucks back in the 1930s, and we’ve always given customers a choice,” said Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America. “They never want to be put in a hole, with us saying, ‘This is what you have to have.’ We always offer a choice.”

The two companies announced the tie-up Tuesday morning, and it connects one of the world’s largest trucking companies with a front-runner in the self-driving realm. The deal did not involve a Daimler investment into Waymo, said Martin Daum, chairman of the board of management at Daimler Truck AG.

“You don’t have to marry just to go to the cinema and watch a movie,” he said. “But we are working very closely together.”

This isn’t Daimler’s first foray into self-driving truck technology. In August 2019, the company took a majority stake in Torc Robotics, a Virginia-based AV company that traced its lineage to the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early and mid-2000s.

Work between Daimler and Torc is ongoing. Last month, the two commenced on-road testing in New Mexico and established a testing center in Albuquerque. Like Waymo, Torc is solely focused on developing Level 4 automation, in which vehicles can drive themselves within certain geographic or road parameters and never require oversight from a human driver.

Daum said Daimler’s work with Waymo, at least for the time being, will focus more on chassis development and building vehicles onto which self-driving systems can be more easily integrated. Together, the two companies want to press forward on one of the more unheralded aspects of pioneering autonomous-driving systems — building redundancy into vehicles.

“That’s a really important point that’s not well-understood,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik. “The development of redundant steering and braking and control systems is extremely important for this space to evolve. … That’s one of the primary gating items in bringing this to the world.”

Waymo hastened such developments on passenger vehicles, working with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build redundant systems into its Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which has become the workhorse of Waymo’s self-driving fleet and is used for testing across the industry. Now it wants to do the same for trucking, using Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia.

“On the Class 8 side, these components do not exist today,” Krafcik said, “and it will take quite a while for Tier 1 suppliers and folks like Daimler to develop these redundant components.”

There’s no specific time frame in which the companies expect development and deployments to take place.

For its part, Waymo has been testing self-driving trucks on the road since 2017. Krafcik emphasized that trucking has long been eyed as a key application for the company’s autonomous-driving system. In March, Waymo rolled out a new business unit called Waymo Via, which focuses on goods delivery in vehicles ranging from minivans to tractor-trailers.

The company has been testing its self-driving trucks across the American Southwest, trawling along the Interstate 10 corridor to link its Phoenix hub with El Paso, Dallas and Houston in Texas. Whether Daimler’s new development center in Albuquerque could be utilized in its partnership with Waymo or remains an outpost exclusive to its work with Torc remains a question.

While development and testing may take place in the Southwest, Daimler and Waymo intend for their partnership to eventually ripple across the globe, with vehicles commercially deployed across North America, Europe and perhaps elsewhere.

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Saurabh Shukla

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