Elon Musk told the world at the end of 2017 that Tesla was using its automotive know-how to apply it to a whole new challenge: big self-propelled gears. But a year later, he placed the Tesla Semi fourth on a list of priorities for the companybehind the future Model Y compact SUV and an electric van. This week, Daimler made a move that lasted many years, announcing its own large platform (although powered by diesel) equipped with semi-autonomous technology. And others follow suit.
The German manufacturer has also committed to manufacturing the truck this summer, with deliveries planned later this year. The company is committed to devoting 500 million euros over the next few years to the further development of a large standalone platform, and has announced that it has hired hundreds of people. Employees to advance technology. And just like at the prototype presentation in 2015, Daimler took us into the truck for a glimpse into the future of trucking.
Although some Tesla Semi prototypes are currently on the road and a dozen well-known companies have already placed special orders for trucks, it does not appear that a production version is coming soon. Tesla still has not specified where and when exactly he will build the trucks, and would probably need to collect more money (or sell a lot more models 3) to finance the project.
Daimler presented its first prototype in 2015
This left the door wide open to companies such as Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Daimler announced that he was working on his own large stand-alone platform in 2015 when he introduced a functional prototype called Freightliner Inspiration Truck. The constructor has made a name for itself with notable debuts on the Hoover Dam and tests on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This week at Consumer Electronics Show, Daimler returned to Las Vegas to keep his promise with a production version of this truck prototype.
The new Cascadia is little more advanced than the prototype of 2015. In fact, the technology is still quite limited. Daimler says it is the first class 8 commercial truck with Tier 2 autonomy (referring to the Society of Automotive Engineers scale for definitions of autonomous driving), which means that the driver is in control, but in some cases benefits from truck technology. In this sense, the new Cascadia has essentially the same basic assistance technology as that offered by many modern cars, including automatic track centering, adaptive cruise control and emergency braking.
The Freightliner inspired truck at the event in 2015.
But the new Cascadia does it with a limited number of sensors. There is a front-facing camera, a forward-facing radar, a second radar sensor located on the right side of the truck. This package is derisory compared to dozens of cameras, ultrasonic sensors and radars that you will find under autopilot, not to mention the Tesla Semi, which is supposed to have a reinforced version of this same set of sensors.
This helps reduce costs, but means that the technology is more in tune with what you will find as powering the Nissan ProPilot driver support feature, as opposed to autopilot, or even the so-called Audi level system. 3, which uses similar technology, but relies on LIDAR. as well as.
The Daimler truck has more in common with the Nissan ProPilot system than the Tesla autopilot.
Keep with one less theme is more, there is no camera surveillance system in the truck to ensure that the driver is attentive when using the features of level 2. Instead of that, the Cascadia uses a system similar to that of Tesla's cars.
A sensor in the steering column measures the resistance applied to the steering wheel. If the driver raises his hand from the steering wheel while using the centering function of the lane, the instrument cluster will sound a warning after about 15 seconds to indicate that he is putting his hands back on the steering wheel. If the driver does not do this, the warning changes from yellow to red. After another 60 seconds, if the driver still has not put his hands on the steering wheel, the truck stops on the side of the road.
The new Cascadia is far from a fully autonomous truck, but based on my brief journey, Daimler has perfected the technology over the prototype version. The prototype swayed on the highway during my two-mile demonstration in 2015, ping-ponging between the beacons. The new truck, meanwhile, felt stuck in the center of the lane during this week's race, which followed exactly the same route as it did a few years ago.
A Daimler representative also said that when centering the lane is activated, the driver can even choose where the system places them in the lane. (For example, if a driver is driving on a highway at a narrow lane and wants to avoid traffic jams, he may ask the truck to take the right lane). This is another sign that the system is maturing since its inception in 2015, if it is a small one.
Daimler promised that other modern technologies would come with the new Cascadia, although none of these technologies are on display in the pre-production trucks used for the demonstration. The company plans to offer an optional 10-inch touch screen in the dashboard and a 12-inch digital group behind the wheel. The truck may also receive live software updates.
The Cascadia will not be as stuffed with technology as the Tesla Semi, nor so elegant. But it will be available later this year. Daimler said that trucking automation would help improve the energy efficiency of millions of kilometers traveled by its major platforms each year. This would reduce the number of kilometers traveled by drivers. More importantly, this could help reduce the nearly 4,000 deaths resulting from accidents involving these huge machines. If all goes well, we might have a feeling, at the end of this year, about the veracity of it all.
TuSimple's truck relies heavily on cameras, but also uses LIDAR and radar sensors.
Daimler was not the only company to introduce an autonomous technology truck this week at CES. TuSimple, a startup based in China and California and supported in part by Nvidia, has brought a Navistar truck equipped with its own technology, whose founder, Xiaodi Hou, can behave completely in limited geographical areas and carefully mapped without human intervention. That's what the SAE calls Level 4 Autonomy, and it's the same level of autonomous driving that Waymo is currently trying to do in Arizona.
While TuSimple did not show his truck at CES this week, the startup has been doing level 4 testing for over a year in different parts of the United States. It also carries cargo during some of these tests to about 12 trading partners – although we do not know which ones for the moment.
Daimler may have taken a slow approach to increasing the autonomy of his trucks, but Hou said level 4 would be possible in the near future. "We are confident to launch this thing every day and it works every day. I think it's great news to differentiate us from the rest of the other players, "he says.
Representation of the man-machine interface used by TuSimple in its trucks, which shows what the truck's sensors and computers are monitoring.
The key, according to Hou, is only trying to operate in these carefully defined areas. "We only work in the field we define. Basically, we have pre-mapped the location, we have gone through the map and we have no surprises, "he says.
In addition, he adds, level 2 systems may have benefits, but they will not solve one of the biggest trucking problems at the moment: the driver shortage. If TuSimple can get a level 4 truck on the road over the next few years, even if it's limited to certain areas, Hou think that removing the need for an authorized safety driver will help the area to do so facing this problem. He also thinks that the change will be enough to make the cash flow of TuSimple positive.
TuSimple transports commercial freight during a few tests to offset development costs
"The difference between the cost of building a more reliable system and that of a poor driver-assisted system is also high," says Hou, spreading his hands a few feet. He then pinches his fingers. "However the value of your return [on Level 2] is it small? "
Daimler trucking manager Martin Daum said last week that his company remains focused on developing highly automated trucks, despite a focus on partial automation. "Our goal is clearly to remain pioneers," he said. "And we want to put a level 4 truck on the road here in the United States this year. Stay tuned. "
The presence of these companies at this year's show has clearly highlighted the fact that a large German manufacturer is ready to start improving the way humans transport goods in our country. "We are ready to go forward boldly," said Daum. Others, like TuSimple, are still testing the limits of what is possible, while trying to make it a sustainable business, albeit limited, in the short term.
Tesla is known for being a leader in introducing new technologies for passenger cars. It triggered the switch to electric propulsion, caused a landslide of giant touch screens and prompted automakers to develop their own partially automated driver assistance systems.
But by the time she enters the trucking industry with a commercial product, the company will have a little catch up, at least with respect to autonomy. If partial or full autonomy becomes a distinguishing factor for companies selling trucks, Tesla will have to convince its customers that autopilot is better than the technologies already on the road (while fighting separately: convince customers that electric propulsion is a viable option in the world of freight transport). It's possible, maybe even probable. It's just not typical of Tesla.
Photograph of Sean O'Kane