Daimler Trucks picks up self-driving software firm Torc Robotics

Daimler and Torc executives

Lyft’s 2.2 billion IPO is getting a lot of attention, but it’s far from the only news in transportation today. Daimler Trucks and Buses Holding Inc., a unit of German automaker Daimler AG, has acquired a majority share in Torc Robotics Inc., which develops software for autonomous vehicles.

“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 U.S. market, and I believe the fastest path to commercialization for self-driving trucks is in partnership with Daimler Trucks, the OEM market leader,” stated Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc Robotics. “This move is in line with our mission of saving lives and represents another major milestone for Torc since crossing the finish line in the DARPA Urban Challenge 12 years ago.”

Merging expertise but staying in lanes

“We are forming the ideal combination between Torc’s expertise on agile software development and our experience in delivering reliable and safe truck hardware,” said Martin Daum, board member responsible for trucks and buses at Daimler AG.

In addition to its software development and testing at its headquarters in Blacksburg, Va., Torc’s 100 staffers will work on self-driving trucks with Daimler’s chassis research and development team in Portland, Ore. The company said that Torc will continue working with Mercedes-Benz Cars on sensors and operations.

Roger Nielsen, Daimler Trucks North America president and CEO, with Michael Fleming, Torc CEO.

Daimler Trucks includes the Freightliner brand, whose Inspiration truck received the first-ever road license for a partially automated vehicle in 2015. Freightliner also produces the first line of trucks with SAE Level 2 capabilities. The vehicles can independently accelerate, brake, and steer because of a new radar and camera fusion system, said the company.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, and the acquisition is subject to U.S. regulatory approval. Torc said it will maintain its name and brand and plans to expand its team.

Leveling up with Torc Robotics

Torc Robotics has demonstrated its systems’ ability to operate in coast-to-coast travel across 20 U.S. states and in inclement weather.

“Torc is not a start-up, but one of the world’s most experienced companies for vehicle automation,” said Roger Nielsen, CEO of Daimler Trucks North America. “Torc takes a practical approach to commercialization and offers advanced, road-ready technology, plus years of experience in heavy vehicles. Torc’s Level 4 system has been shown to operate well for both urban and highway driving in rain, snow, fog, and sunshine.”

Torc Robotics' Asimov in bad weather

Self-driving vehicles being tested in inclement weather. Source: Torc Robotics

The company has partnerships with Caterpillar for mining and agricultural applications and with AAA Northern California, Nevada, and Utah for the development of safety criteria. Torc is also working with Bodrin Motor Corp. on electric and autonomous vehicles.

Fellow editor Steve Crowe and I rode in Torc’s Asimov test car at CES in Las Vegas, and we were impressed at how smoothly the system handled routine urban traffic, including traffic lights, merging, and turns. A safety driver was still necessary to react to unexpected actions by human drivers, such as taking a car the wrong direction on a one-way street or cutting across multiple lanes of traffic without signaling.

Daimler and Torc plan to develop and commercialize self-driving trucks at SAE Level 4. At that level of autonomy, vehicles are supposed to be able to operate mostly without human involvement. That’s a lofty goal, but an important one given the shrinking workforce of 2 million truck drivers in the U.S. due to retirement and people’s preference for other occupations.

Before self-driving passenger cars become common, fleets of semi-autonomous trucks could lighten the load for long-haul truckers. Last month saw numerous investments in autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are also promising for public transit, and Torc and Transdev in January announced the integration of Level 4 technology in an i-Crystal shuttle that is being tested in France and is scheduled for commercial operation later this year.

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