Daimler collects data for robotic trucks in New Mexico

Daimler collects data for robotic trucks in New Mexico

As of: 06/19/2022 3:08 p.m

Artificial intelligence should enable trucks to be on the road without a driver in the future. The manufacturer Daimler collects the necessary data in the US state of New Mexico. A site visit.

By Markus Schuler, ARD Studio San Francisco

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city of half a million people, one color dominates: terracotta. All around a stone desert, the air is dry and dusty. “If you can do Albuquerque, then you can do all of America,” says Peter Vaughan Schmidt, who is responsible for autonomous trucks at Stuttgart-based vehicle manufacturer Daimler Trucks. “For us, data is actually the source of optimization”. It is data from “an extremely demanding environment here in Albuquerque”.

Three years ago, Daimler joined the US software manufacturer Torc Robotics. The Stuttgart-based company is a leader in the construction of trucks. But when it comes to software and, in particular, autonomously driving trucks, all European manufacturers have a big deficit.

Up to 20 trucks on the road every day

The Cascadia is a powerful truck from the Freightliner brand, a 100 percent subsidiary of Daimler in the USA. From the test site in Albuquerque, Daimler sends up to 20 trucks onto the highways around the city every day – day and night. Training is everything for the AI ​​systems.

At Torc there are different teams that evaluate and categorize every test drive. This is the only way for an artificial intelligence (AI) system to know how to react later. “Perception is really how you see the world. What’s around me? What’s moving right now? That’s the only way to really drive safely,” says Andrew Culhane, Torc’s chief strategy officer. “But we also evaluate the behavior. Does the truck change lanes, does it accelerate, does it slow down, does it merge? This gives us an overview of how a truck has to react.

The AI ​​systems are only as good as their training data. This is fed to the computers in the test truck. This is already happening today with Daimler trucks in the USA, which have assistance systems on board and are operated by trucking companies. These also collect data for future robotic trucks.

Initially only used in the USA

Anyone sitting in the driver’s cabin will notice a cupboard in the rear. A server is buzzing there that evaluates dozens of sensors, including lidars, i.e. special optical distance meters, laser sensors and cameras. The high-performance computer is the brain of the vehicle. It must be able to react to all eventualities.

“A motorcyclist could fall on the highway at night wearing black clothing,” says Vaughan Schmidt. “Can we handle something like this or not when the autonomous truck arrives? That’s a case that we’ve solved. There are also very, very many abstruse cases that you can’t even imagine.”

Trucks will probably be the first vehicles to move on our roads without a driver. At Daimler, it is expected that in a good seven years, i.e. in the year 2030, the time could come. However, only in the USA. Because of its borders and narrower roads, Europe is likely to be several years later.

Slower pace, wider streets

Advantage of the United States: Here all vehicles drive slower, trucks and cars move at the same speed. The roads are wider and there are fewer curves. The plan is for trucks to only drive sections of the route autonomously. At the motorway exit, a person gets in and takes over.

Daimler also provides a control room for freight forwarders. There should be people here – often thousands of kilometers away – who can intervene remotely with any truck. “In the autonomous truck, we need the ability to communicate. This is particularly important because real-time communication is necessary in logistics to keep everything running,” says Klara Oberhollenzer from Daimler. “In the future, our Mission Control will enable driver managers to communicate with this autonomous vehicle without being software engineers.”

It turns out that the world of robotic vehicles is a lot less spectacular than Elon Musk and Tesla would have you believe.

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