Cars, trucks and vans are now ‘transport solutions’, which is why automotive OEMs are flocking to events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. With the world’s media gathered, Martin Daum, CEO of Daimler Trucks and Buses, advanced the reality of that new label by what he had to say.
As part of the introduction, head of global communications Daimler Trucks and Buses, Florian Martens, painted a strategic picture around the letters CASE, an acronym that encompasses the mega-trends driving mobility for people and products in the foreseeable future. Connectivity, Autonomy, Sharing, and Electric will form the pillars that guide Mercedes-Benz’s strategy for dealing with transformational technology in industry. He said the toughest challenges must be met with bold ideas, expertise, and consideration for the broader society.
Painting a picture
The venue for the presentation was the Keep the Memory Alive centre in Las Vegas, a globally recognised institute for brain research, and on taking the stage it was brains that Martin Daum wanted to discuss, artificial ones...truck driving ones. Daum said Daimler’s EV programme is well under way, well documented, and well understood, and that today was about automation, starting with a reminder of the crucial difference between trucks and cars, that “Nobody buys a truck because he wants to buy a truck, he buys a truck because he has a job to do. Trucks are all about technology. “The average highway truck today has 400 sensors and 100 million lines of software code,” he said, “constantly online sending data back to make the truck and usage of the truck better.”
He used Daimler’s record 2018 sales to emphasise that the company’s previous developmental paths are obviously on point, driven by listening to what customers want in order to make their businesses better. “We are obligated to innovate,” he said, saying innovation has been the cornerstone of the company’s 120-plus-year history.
The original truck had been built to make the cartage of beer more efficient; mechanical advances drove the early years; then came materials – the use of aluminium and composites; then electronics, and now software and artificial intelligence. But he said technology for technology’s sake is never a key driver, and serving the transport requirements of customers and countries alike is key. “We build to provide solutions. Automated trucks can take trucking and transportation to the next level and advance our economies and societies.”
No longer following
The first big announcement was the canning of any further research on platooning. “We definitely won’t start another major project on platooning,” he said, although existing commitments would be honoured. He said that platooning’s benefits were in fuel consumption and although in the lab environment it stacked up, in the real world there were just too many variables and the payback wasn’t there.
“However, when we trialled the second truck following without a driver, that was a completely different story,” he said, emphasising that the investment in platooning (€50m as quoted in a media roundtable later in the day) not only helped clarify direction, but also contributed hugely to rapid advancements in autonomous systems, particularly the Level 2 ones we’re seeing today.
Photo: The 2019 Cascadia bristling with Level 2 autonomous functionality and available to local customers in the States soon.
Level 4 needed to make a ‘CASE’
The key announcement though was the jump from Level 2 autonomy, bypassing Level 3 and focusing on Level 4 (potentially free of driver involvement but operating in a restricted environment). “We will target Level 4 next. We are going to Level 4 directly from Level 2. Why skip Level 3? “Technology must make a business case for the customer. It makes no sense having high levels of technology in a truck just to have redundancy for the human factor. We have to relieve the human driver from some of his responsibilities.” Daum revisited comments he made in 2016, acknowledging his own scepticism at the time on the rate at which autonomy would prevail, saying, “We are far further than we were in those days”.
He emphasised the learnings they’d realised from the likes of the Freightliner Inspiration project, citing that as a tangible reference point for anyone doubting the company’s capacity to lead innovation. However, he was also at pains not to underestimate the size of the mountain they’d given themselves to climb.
“We have an aspiration to bring the technology to the road within a decade,” said Daum, but he emphasised the timing may not be precise due to the size of the unknown challenges. He said the targets at this stage would be hub-tohub operations, within the US initially on account of its infrastructure and uniform traffic flow patterns, although the project would implicate Daimler’s R&D centres around the globe and tap into synergies in other divisions.
€.5 billion has been set aside to commence the gargantuan task. How long that initial budget would last is unknown – four years was bandied about a little later on in the roundtable. He emphasised that this was not a revolutionary situation but a step-by-step one that required absolute integrity in the finished solution, drawing a comparison with the relative simplicity of consumer electronics against the task they faced where technology attached to a truck had to work faultlessly year in, year out for millions of kilometres, in all weathers, never failing in its tasks, be that braking, lane keeping, navigation or understanding the difference between a car, person, tumbleweed, a rabbit, or a buffalo. “It needs to be absolutely reliable and safe before we go on public roads.”
Photo: Sitting quietly in the corner, the Inspiration’s lived up to its name in every way.
The chicken or its egg?
Of course safety was cited as the overarching reason behind the initiative. “Level 4 even compared to the best Level 2 trucks will have significant further increases in safety. “The improved safety comes thanks to a multitude of sensors and systems. It comes through redundancy. And it’s important because according to surveys, the safety of highly automated vehicles is still doubted by the majority of people. And on the other side, the majority of the accidents you see on our highways are due to human errors. We want to help to prevent those human errors. Technology can truly help to reduce those moments of fatigue.”
Second cab off the rank was efficiency and productivity. He said with the global freight task forecast to double between 2015 and 2050, there’s an obvious need to maximise asset utility and make the best use of freight and traffic optimisation technology. Drawing on statistical data he pointed out the correlation between a country’s prosperity and the efficiency of their logistics systems.
“It’s the only way in our opinion to cope with future volumes in a safe and sustainable way. “We have to take steps to reduce the impact of more goods on the road,” he said, highlighting the fact autonomous trucks don’t need holidays or sick days and can work around the clock. “Highly automated trucks will cut the cost per mile considerably,” he said, pointing out the potential improvement even against the best drivers, compounded by the fact that not all drivers can be the best; the inference being that the further down the bell curve for driver quality the trucks infiltrate, the more dosh will be in the pot.
“Level 4 trucks are a great business case for our customers and more subsidies are needed for their introduction.” Of course the key condition to all this is public acceptance. “There is a crucial need for public acceptance and a regulatory framework. We are ready to work with all relevant authorities to develop consistent laws, rules, and policies. That will take time as well. “We are fully committed to fostering trust in this technology.”
What about me?
The elephant in the room is what happens to the drivers, and the societal impact of autonomy’s rise. Not surprisingly, Daum addressed this also. “What does it mean for truck drivers if highly automated trucks first operate on specific routes and then on more and more highways?
“As a leader in the trucking industry we take every question seriously, and we are convinced that a successful transition will be a joint effort between manufacturers and all relevant stakeholders.”
He then affirmed Daimler’s commitment to take responsibility, citing their founding membership in the industry-wide initiative ‘Partnership for Transportation, Innovation and Opportunity’, whose charter was to understand the impact of technology on jobs, establishing a transition council recommended by the OECD Transport Forum.
“We are very open to dialogue and additional research initiatives. We are dedicated to funding extensive research and education, and collaborating with stakeholders to help manage a transition to highly automated trucks. “Automated trucks are a fascinating piece of technology and promise a lot of benefits for the future.” As the session wound up, Daum teased the audience with a hint that there would be a Level 4 truck operating in the US before the year was out. “Stay tuned,” he said.