Daimler announces major investment in self-driving semi trucks

Freightliner Cascadia semi truck

German automaker Daimler revealed the new Freightliner Cascadia at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show on Monday and also announced a major new investment into self-driving technology.

Daimler said it has earmarked $570 million for investment in self-driving semi trucks int he coming years. The goal is to realize a Level 4 autonomous semi truck that will drive itself on set routes without the expectation for any driver intervention. The automaker said it will skip research into a Level 3 system because that technology does not provide great enough benefits.

The investment will create 200 new jobs in the engineering and robotics field in Portland, Oregon, and Daimler will also seek new IT and programming specialists.

The latest Cascadia semi truck enters the market with Level 2 self-driving functions, which Daimler said makes it the first series-production semi truck in North America to feature semi-autonomous functions. Specifically, the system (called Detroit Assurance 5.0 with Active Lane Assist) is able to independently brake, steer, and accelerate at all speed ranges, though the driver has to monitor the vehicle and likely keep his/her hands on the steering wheel. Previously, such functions were left to lower speed ranges. The latest radar and camera technologies unlocked the Cascadia’s Level 2 abilities.

In the future, Level 4 self-driving systems will allow the trucks to operate around the clock, including at night during low-traffic times. They will also provide a new level of safety that won’t require drivers who could become tired, though they will also likely cost countless jobs.

Self-driving trucks will be enabled by radar, cameras, and lidar just like cars, but their demands will be greater. Their mass will need to be taken into account, as will the articulation of their trailers, and their different driving characteristics.

Daimler isn’t the only automaker researching self-driving semis. Volvo Trucks has already shown off its Vera autonomous semi and Ford debuted a concept semi truck that showcased its long-term vision for the vehicle type.

Daimler also noted that there is no future for platooning in its semi trucks. The strategy, which sees a lead vehicle followed closely by other semis that follow driver inputs from the lead vehicle, does not provide enough fuel savings benefits, according to the German automaker’s research. The idea is to reduce aerodynamic drag with the platoon and create greater efficiencies. Research showed that fuel savings in perfect conditions were less than expected.

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