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    Industrial partners play an important role in autonomous driving for Daimler Trucks. An Interview.

    Daimler Trucks are shifting up a gear on the topic of autonomous driving in accordance with SAE Level 4. Based on a successful partnership with Torc Robotics, the global leading commercial vehicle manufacturer is now pooling additional forces. Also, Daimler Trucks announced that it would be forming an extensive, globally-oriented strategic partnership with Waymo. And with LIDAR specialist Luminar Technologies, Inc., Daimler Trucks recently announced another partnership. To strengthen this, Daimler Trucks also acquired a minority stake in Luminar. 

    It's becoming quite clear that industrial partners will be playing a key role when it comes to autonomous driving. Thomas Rohde and Frank Hermes, purchasing experts for automated driving at Daimler Truck AG, give us some insight into the correlations. 

    Online interview partners: Thomas Rohde (left) and Frank Hermes, purchasing experts for automated driving at Daimler Truck AG.

    Editors: Mr. Rohde, Mr. Hermes – there is a lot is going on at Daimler Trucks around the topic of autonomous driving in accordance with SAE Level 4. What is the objective actually?

    Thomas Rohde: Daimler Trucks has been working extensively on CO2-neutral, autonomous and networked driving. We are bringing these key technologies into series production across brands, divisions and regions as much as possible. By doing so, we're making a big step towards our vision of CO2-neutral transport and accident-free driving and contributing to sustainability in the global movement of goods and people.

    Frank Hermes: As far as autonomous driving is concerned, our goal is to introduce SAE Level 4 trucks into series production over the course of this decade. Naturally, near-series vehicles should appear on the roads of North America well before that. We have been well under way with our prototypes on public roads and the second generation of the test fleet is already being currently developed. 

    Both of you are established in the field of procurement. At first glance you might ask yourself: What role does procurement play in autonomous driving?

    Thomas Rohde: You are not able to handle such a complex technology like autonomous driving according to SAE Level 4 on your own if you want to reach your goal in a limited period of time. When it comes to autonomous driving according to SAE Level 4, we rely on strong industrial partners that widely contribute to this technology. Here at Daimler Truck's Global Procurement Trucks & Buses, we are building a central interface to suppliers and other stakeholders in the industry.

    You are the Global Lead Buyer in the automated driving sector. What do you do in this role?

    Thomas Rohde: At Daimler Truck, we are already implementing driver assistance systems and components on our vehicle platforms. This allows us to implement level 1 and 2 automated driving, meaning assisted and partially automated driving. The associated purchasing activities for the components are coordinated in our team within the scope of Global Lead Buying. 

    Since we can rely on such a strong internal and external network and existing structures, our team is also responsible for the purchase of sensors for autonomous driving according to SAE Level 4. The sensor system includes everything that handles the vehicle environment. So for example, we're looking at things like LIDAR, the radar-related method for laser-based distance and speed measurement. You can also call it "the eye" of the self-driving truck…

    Frank Hermes (adds to the words of his colleague): … and while all the issues regarding "the key" lead to Thomas, I am responsible for the vehicle chassis – so the "body" (laughing). I am the Daimler Trucks purchasing contact for the redundant chassis on the North American side. This means that the vehicle will meet the increased requirements for autonomous driving. 

    Can you give us an example of the above-mentioned increased requirements for the chassis in autonomous driving according to SAE Level 4?

    Frank Hermes: The issue of safety is particularly important in autonomous driving. In the course of autonomous driving according to SAE Level 4, systems need to be secured on multiple levels so that if one component fails, the other can guarantee continued service. The goal: In the event of a malfunction, the truck comes to a safe stop. Today's drivers also pull over if the unlikely malfunction occurs.  To guarantee that this will happen, for example, if the power supply fails, another supply unit must take over the load. Energy management is therefore a topic that we especially focus on in autonomous driving.

    To continue with our analogy: So we have the 'eyes' and 'body' – are our partners Torc and Waymo the centrally guiding 'brain'?

    Thomas Rohde: Yes, you could say that. To achieve our ambitious goal of putting highly automated SAE Level 4 series-production trucks on the road by the end of the decade, we will rely on our cooperation with the best in the industry. This makes perfect sense in matters where others have more experience and expertise. And it is quite obvious that partners like Torc and Waymo have enormous know-how we can benefit from as far the software-based “virtual driver” is concerned. Last but not least, a well-functioning “brain” is key in guaranteeing 100% operation and safety of the system at all times. 

    So, going back to the matter of achieving goals: What does an industrial partner, be it as a collaborator or as a supplier, ideally bring to a cooperation when it comes to autonomous driving?

    Frank Hermes: The first thing that comes to my mind is agility. When it comes to autonomous driving, we are quite often negotiating uncharted territory. All project partners must therefore think and act quickly. This also means that at times you have to rethink things if something doesn't work as planned. 

    Thomas Rohde: We generally need a greater willingness to jointly bear potential risks in the development phase. Unknown obstacles can appear when you're breaking new ground. You have to cope with such issues together, even if it all costs more energy than originally planned.

    What advantages does an industrial partner enjoy when working with us on autonomous driving?

    Thomas Rohde: I clearly see this as a classic win-win situation. Daimler Trucks is one of the first OEMs that wants to implement autonomous driving in long-distance transport. Being on board from the very start opens up enormous potential for the future for anybody involved. 

    Frank Hermes: In our work in the field of autonomous driving, we constantly balance between conflicting priorities of cost versus quantity. Costs will drop as quantities grow. Daimler Truck is making heavy investments here to make the technology a success. We also expect marked commitment from strong industrial partners who would like to embark with us on this autonomous journey. 

    Additional information on the topic 

    Daimler Trucks Autonomous Technology Group: Competence center for autonomous driving

    Following the announcement made by Daimler Trucks at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2019 that the company would invest more than 500 million euros in autonomous SAE Level 4 driving, the truck manufacturer founded the Autonomous Technology Group as a global organization for autonomous driving in June 2019. All global competencies and activities, including those of Torc and Daimler Trucks North America, are bundled in this group. The central tasks of the unit include building the overall strategy for autonomous driving and its implementation; this includes research and development as well as setup of the required infrastructure and network for operational vehicle deployment. The development sites of the global organization today include Portland, Madras and Blacksburg (all located in the USA), as well as Stuttgart.

    Partnership with Torc Robotics

    Daimler Trucks and Torc have been working together since spring 2019. The US-based company has been a part of the Autonomous Technology Group at Daimler Trucks since September 2019. The goal of the partners is to put series-production autonomous trucks (SAE Level 4) on the road over the course of the decade. The combined strengths of Daimler Trucks and Torc have yielded a unique partnership: Daimler Trucks has several decades of experience in testing and validating safe commercial vehicles. At the same time, Torc is one of the world's most experienced companies in the area of autonomous driving, with highly developed, roadworthy technology and years of expertise in heavy commercial vehicles. "Asimov", Torc's system for autonomous SAE level 4 driving, has already been tested in city traffic and long-distance transport, in rain, snow, fog and in a wide variety of lighting conditions.

    Partnership with Waymo

    In October 2020, Daimler Trucks and Waymo established an extensive, globally-oriented strategic partnership in the area of autonomous driving (SAE Level 4). Waymo and Daimler Trucks want to use autonomous trucks to improve both road safety and the productivity of fleet customers. As a prelude to this cooperation, the partners combined Waymo's leading autonomous driving technology with a variant of the Freightliner Cascadia from Daimler specially developed for this application. 

    Minority stake in LIDAR specialist Luminar Technologies, Inc.

    The goal of the partnership established in 2020 is to put series-production autonomous trucks (SAE Level 4) on the road. The initial focus is placed on long-distance traffic on US highways. The experts from Daimler Trucks, the US-based subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), and Torc Robotics, as well as the experts from Luminar, are working closely together to further develop Luminar's LIDAR technology for correspondingly high speeds. This applies in particular to object recognition, the corresponding data processing, as well as the performance of the entire system. To strengthen the partnership, Daimler Trucks acquired a minority stake in Luminar.