Torc Robotics’ self-driving truck is boring – and that’s just the way they like it.
Daimler Truck gave the media a chance this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to pilot the Freightliner Cascadia’s self-driving technology and, true to design, it was mostly boring.
In other words, the sensor- and camera-adorned truck had no problems lugging 78,000 pounds on the nearly hour-long round trip to an imaginary hub location, which required negotiating roaring traffic along two highways and surface streets.
One of the taxi attendants sat in the driver’s seat with his hands on the steering wheel while another sat to his right, helping him as another pair of eyes. The attendants are experienced truck drivers and are carefully vetted to ensure they are up to the task of helping to steer along the eventual deployment of a Level 4 system that requires no attendants, which Torc expects by the end of the decade—or, their managers and engineers said over and over again, “when It’s safe.”
While Torc keeps its safety and technology goals very close to the vest (photos and video of the truck interior, mission control screen and some presentation slides were not allowed), it is clear that it is focused on constantly obtaining as much data as possible in the constant pursuit of safety and efficiency. . Critical information comes not only from on-board and remote data systems, but also from seasoned in-cab drivers and staff working again in what Torc calls mission control.
“We think that’s really important as far as seeing the truck go on the road, all the other aspects of connecting to the cargo network are captured, more elevated functionality of what a dispatcher or driver manager might do today in Mission Control and a lot of other cool features as well,” he said. Andrew Cohen, Torc’s chief strategy officer, speaks to reporters before a test drive.
“We have the ability to transmit weather data back and forth to the vehicles,” Culhane continued. “We have traffic information. We have a lot that can make the promise of autonomous driving more feasible and impactful for mission control.”
In many ways, Torc’s approach is similar to that of NASA or Air Traffic Control. Cutting-edge technologies powered by Torc software analyze and tenaciously respond to a long list of variables on the open road while being overseen by accomplished engineers driven to make long-haul trucking safer, greener and more profitable.
Getting there requires two shifts of driving each day. Albuquerque was chosen as the site for Torc’s truck-testing facility in 2020 after acquiring a majority of Daimler Truck the previous year. Heavy traffic amid the popular I-40 and I-25 freight lanes, along with some challenging external factors such as winter snowfall, rainy summer monsoons, and occasional winds, make the area ideal for testing.
Exit on the highway
On Tuesday afternoon, we were met with clear skies, winds of about 5 mph and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The truck was in manual mode at first, which required the driver to take the truck from Torc’s spacious parking lot to nearby I-25. As we made our way up the ramp, a blue light appeared at the top of the cab indicating that the truck had switched to autonomous mode.
Sitting in the back of the cab provided a clear view of the road ahead, along with an intriguing display of a screen that displayed a graphical view of the truck, traffic, and surrounding objects, as LiDAR, radar, and cameras provided the crucial inputs needed to help the truck find its way. Meanwhile, the mission control system monitored the truck’s progress while its autonomous onboard system made all decisions regarding braking, acceleration, lane changes and stopping.
As the truck made its way to I-25 onramp, the screen showed the truck inside its green zone—or its comfort zone—a large buffer zone it likes to keep between itself and traffic ahead and behind. The turn signal sounded when the truck effortlessly glided onto the highway and maintained a speed of 1 mph below the speed limit.
“They call it the speed limit for a reason,” he said. Walter Gregg, Program Director of Product Strategy at Torc who joined CCJ on my way. “There are legal ramifications to that, so we’re not breaking it. I think it’s fair to say that the default driver is very conservative.”
Because an autonomous truck doesn’t have to stop for breaks or to eat, driving a hair below the speed limit is no Torc when it comes to having fun plus it helps save fuel and provides an extra range like a truck.”It constantly monitors the physics of the environment.
Then, similar to what the driver would do, the truck determined the optimal path to travel for the next exit, in this case I-40. With another well-placed lane change, we were off to a mostly uneventful ride—that is, until a neighboring driver got a little fidgety, which most truckers will attest to, and is typical of the road.
In this case, a small sedan changed lanes near the truck. Although visually to this reporter it looks like a lane change is too soon, the truck’s green zone on the screen indicates that there is no need to apply the brakes. This is something to keep in mind for fleets interested in conserving brakes and fuel: you simply can’t beat a computer when it comes to saving both.
What happened next was really interesting and an impressive reminder of how far artificial intelligence has come in dealing with – let’s face it – the human factor in squirrel brains. As this compact car was zipped forward about 20 yards or so and got on the tail of another driver, it was obvious to the truck that this guy was less than trustworthy. Therefore, the truck slowed down to provide a greater cushion between itself and the dangerous driver in front of it. Gregg ensured that the truck, like a safety-conscious human driver, would look ahead in traffic and make adjustments as needed to mitigate hazards. That was impressive.
As we approached the demonstration center off the highway, the truck continued to take charge. Easily spot traffic lights and proceed or stop accordingly. He made an impressive button-left turn at one intersection after determining he had a clear shot to briefly enter the adjacent lane. Other than that, it was rather tedious as the truck carefully and safely made its way, as all good drivers do, from point A to point B.
In this case, the hub model would act as a critical point from A to B. Torc initially envisions drivers delivering loads from a large freight destination, such as a major port to a hub, where Freightliner vans (initially Cascadias) equipped with Torc’s autonomous technology will drive loads through freight lanes main to another center. From there, human drivers will transport the payload to its final destination.
Founded in 2005, Torc draws on much of the experience gained from working with the US military over the years to develop self-driving technology that’s not only powerful and reliable enough to get through tough driving conditions, but also capable of succeeding on a lean budget. according to Peter Schmidt, CEO of Torc, who was previously head of Daimler’s Autonomous Technology Group before joining Torc this year, Daimler was quickly won over by the perseverance and continued success of the Tork team.
“We made some bold decisions, and I think the biggest and most important decision was buying Torc. It was absolutely the right decision,” Schmidt said.
Torc announced in September that it had entered a pilot program with Schneider, which Culhane said Tuesday during a media briefing “has been in the works for two weeks now. One [truck] I just arrived in Phoenix a few minutes ago.”
Schmidt smiled as he told reporters the truck “arrived four hours ago.”
The pilot with Schneider enables Tork “to make sure that we’re learning with leaders in the industry and what’s really needed to embrace and integrate this technology,” Cohen said.
The opportunity also allows Torc to work on her plans to pass the reins of Mission Control.
Cohen continued, “We don’t intend to run and operate our own freight network. There are experts in this world who are good at how to run fleet operations, how to handle customers and book and all of that. It would be foolish of us to think we can be better than them with that. So.” Our mission is to help build a product that empowers them.”
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