Four years ago, Daimler Trucks' Freightliner Inspiration Truck became the first ever self-driving commercial truck to receive a road license plate for autonomous operation on public highways. Today, Daimler Trucks is shifting into overdrive with the acquisition of Torc Robotics, an American autonomous vehicle company, to help improve and commercialize SAE Level 4 automated trucks on US roads.
Torc, for the unfamiliar, has been developing autonomous vehicle tech for over a decade. We first became aware of the company back in 2008 as Torc Technologies -- the company selling the ByWire XGV, a self-driving Ford Escape Hybrid upgraded technology developed for the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, as a research platform for anyone interested in developing autonomous cars. Torc has helped develop autonomous shuttle buses and has partnerships for mining, defense and agriculture applications of its automated-driving tech. Just last year, we were able to take a ride in Torc's Project Asimov autonomous demonstration vehicles at CES 2018.
The majority stake acquisition, which is still pending approval by US regulators, will bring Torc Robotics into the Daimler Trucks family. Torc will continue to operate as a separate entity "retaining its name, team, existing customers and facilities in Blacksburg, Virginia," according to a statement by Daimler trucks. Daimler's investment of an undisclosed sum will allow the robotics company to expand its team and work closely to bring its self-driving know-how (and Level 4 technology) to the development of autonomous heavy vehicles like big rig trucks. Other Daimler companies -- such as passenger car manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz -- would also benefit from Torc's tech and tighter integrations.
Daimler has already been actively developing autonomous tech for trucks. The, a semi-autonomous driving system that can steer accelerate and brake when the conditions are right. However, this automated tech is pretty much highway-bound and still needs a human to take over when the weather or road markings get bad. "Torc's Level 4 system has been shown to operate well for both urban and highway driving in rain, snow, fog and sunshine," said Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, in a statement explaining the benefit the Torc acquisition would bring to Daimler.
"With the ever rising demand for road transportation, not the least through e-commerce, there is a strong business case for self-driving trucks in the US market," said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc, "I believe the fastest path to commercialization for self-driving trucks is in partnership with Daimler Trucks, the OEM market leader."
Trucking is a huge part of the American economy -- some would say that it is the backbone -- that is facing down a growing supply-and-demand problem. Our growing demands for product shipments and food deliveries from Amazon, Ebay and other online retailers is coming into conflict with a creeping shortage of qualified truck drivers. This has sent logistics companies looking for new ways to keep their rigs rolling and in the black and created a technological gold rush as companies like Daimler Trucks, Nikola and Tesla race to bring smart solutions like automation and electrification to market.