How Torc Robotics and Daimler Truck are Approaching Autonomous Trucking

Driverless long-haul trucks are a tantalizing prospect, but autonomous-vehicle developers have wildly different ideas about how to make them a reality. In a breakout session at The Information’s fifth annual Autonomous Vehicles Summit earlier this month, Torc Robotics CEO Michael Fleming and Daimler Truck AG Chief Executive Martin Daum discussed their collective bet on building automated trucks and selling them to trucking companies that will ultimately operate them.

That kind of “pure play” approach differs from that of TuSimple, a semi truck developer that plans to operate its own fleet of trucks and handle other aspects of the freight business. Daum referred to the latter approach as “boiling the ocean” and said it would take longer to execute.

“When it comes to data safety, braking, steering, cooling, electrical performance of that vehicle is completely different from a truck driver to a human being as a last resort. In our business scale is everything,” said Daum, whose company acquired Torc two years ago.

The U.S. truck freight market generates $800 billion in revenue per year, so it’s no surprise a growing number of automated-driving software developers are trying to chase the opportunity. For Torc, “What we are constantly solving for is how do we get to product faster—not how do we do everything,” Fleming said. The only way to get to market is to work closely with the biggest semi truck manufacturer in the world, Daimler Truck, which has the engineering expertise, capital and leadership to make it happen, he said.

By contrast, other developers including Embark Trucks, which recently filed to go public by merging with a blank-check company, and Kodiak Robotics are trying to go it alone by essentially retrofitting existing trucks that weren’t made to be automated.

“When you can bring in the domain experts who understand how the trucking industry works, which is far more complex than I initially realized, that helps you really construct a more optimized and appropriate business model to get to a profitable product,” Fleming said.

Daum and Fleming said that amid chronic truck-driver shortages in the U.S. and accelerating e-commerce sales requiring home delivery, automated trucking would shore up the U.S. economy as well as provide more optimized and sustainable transport solutions. Daum said small-to-medium-sized businesses will still be necessary and that Daimler didn’t plan on running and maintaining its own fleets.