Daimler Truck’s Innovative Leap: Integrating Electric and Autonomous Technologies

Daimler Truck has taken a significant step forward by integrating autonomous driving technology into its Class 8 electric eCascadia, demonstrating a forward-looking approach to the markets for driverless trucks and the evolving demands for emission reductions.

Joanna Buttler, head of the Daimler Truck Global Autonomous Technology Group, explained during a virtual news conference, “We explored the idea of merging the freight efficiency of an autonomous truck with the zero emissions and decarbonization benefits of our series production electric vehicle.”

The result, unveiled on Wednesday, is an eCascadia equipped with a Level 4 autonomous system from Torc Robotics, a Daimler subsidiary.

Daimler plans to use this demo unit to investigate how the motion control in an electric truck differs from that in a diesel-powered engine with an automated manual transmission and to determine if autonomy affects the electric truck’s driving range.

Potential Competition with Gatik

Daimler also hinted at future applications for its Class 6 eM2 electric truck, positioning itself as a potential competitor to Gatik, currently the sole player in middle-mile autonomy.

“We are exploring use cases that could benefit from this technology,” Butler noted. “We are examining repeatable and fixed routes and are analyzing where this type of vehicle would be an ideal fit to offer our customers a variety of solutions.”

Daimler’s research shows that short- and medium-haul applications account for 60 billion miles and move 11 billion tons of freight annually in regional hauls.

Design Challenges and Innovations

The demo truck featured Torc’s latest upper sensor bar, which includes long-range lidars, cameras, and radars for advanced perception — enabling it to see far ahead on the road and detect nearby traffic and obstacles.

The design team faced challenges in placing the Torc compute unit between the driver and passenger seats and under the passenger seat. Autonomous trucks typically use the sleeper cab space behind the driver for these data-processing units.

An air-cooling system and four 12-volt batteries ensure the compute unit has enough power. Safety engineers required that both seats remain in the truck so a safety driver and engineer could monitor its performance.

Torc is currently testing diesel-powered Cascadias with redundant brakes, steering, and power for two major Daimler freight customers — C.R. England and Schneider — along a 960-mile route from Phoenix to Oklahoma City, with each load having a safety driver and an engineer on board.

Torc System and the Road to Commercialization

Daimler remains committed to its plan to commercially launch the Torc driving system in 2027. Meanwhile, two startup competitors, Aurora Innovation and Kodiak Robotics, are planning limited commercialization of driverless trucks in Texas this year. Aurora aims to install its Aurora Driver system on assembly lines by 2027, allowing for the scaling up of thousands of autonomous trucks.

Buttler highlighted, “We can already see how this integration works by bringing the autonomous system to our production line.”

As battery-electric trucks gain popularity, it will be crucial for charging infrastructure to be available at launching and landing terminals where driverless trucks deliver their loads. Charging simultaneously with trailer swaps or loading can reduce dwell time.

Fuel-Agnostic Autonomous Options

Battery-electric propulsion is just one part of Daimler’s fuel-agnostic strategy for autonomous trucks. The company plans to offer only zero-emissions trucks in its major markets by 2039.

Daimler is also researching hydrogen fuel for an internal combustion engine (ICE) and hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Interest in H2 ICE is increasing as governments worldwide are showing a willingness to classify them as zero emissions despite minimal nitrogen oxide emissions from burning hydrogen as fuel.

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