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Daimler is beating Tesla to making semi-autonomous big rigs

Riding in the new semi-autonomous Cascadia semi

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Elon Musk told the world in late 2017 that Tesla was taking its automotive know-how and applying it to a totally new challenge: self-driving big rigs. But one year later, he placed the Tesla Semi fourth on a list of priorities for the company, behind the upcoming Model Y compact SUV and an electric pickup truck. This week, Daimler executed a move many years in the making by announcing its own big rig (albeit diesel-powered) outfitted with semi-autonomous technology. And others are following suit.

The German automaker also committed to manufacturing the truck this summer, with deliveries scheduled for later this year. It pledged 500 million euros over the next few years to the continued development of an autonomous big rig, and said it has hired hundreds of employees to move the tech forward. And just like it did when it unveiled the prototype version in 2015, Daimler gave us a ride in the truck to get a taste of what the near future of trucking will look like.

While there are a few Tesla Semi prototypes on the road now, and a dozen or so big name companies have placed preorders for the trucks, it doesn’t look like a production version is coming any time soon. Tesla still hasn’t said where or exactly when it will build the trucks, and would likely need to raise more money (or sell a hell of a lot more Model 3s) to fund the project.

Daimler first showed off a prototype in 2015

This has left the door wide open for companies like Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Daimler announced it was working on its own self-driving big rig in 2015 when it showed off a working prototype called the Freightliner Inspiration Truck. The automaker went big, debuting the truck on the Hoover Dam and offering test rides at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, Daimler returned to Las Vegas to make good on its promise with a production version of that prototype truck.

The new Cascadia is not much more advanced than the prototype was in 2015. In fact, the technology is still pretty limited. Daimler says it’s the first Class 8 commercial truck with Level 2 autonomy (referring to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale for self-driving definitions), meaning the driver is in control, but is supported heavily by the truck’s technology in certain situations. In that sense, the new Cascadia essentially has the same basic driver assistance technology many modern cars offer, including automatic lane centering, adaptive cruise control, and emergency braking.

The Freightliner Inspiration Truck at the event in 2015.
The Freightliner Inspiration Truck at the event in 2015.

But the new Cascadia is doing this with a limited set of sensors. There’s a forward-facing camera, a forward-facing radar, a second radar sensor on the right side of the truck. That package pales in comparison to the dozens of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and radars you’d find powering Autopilot, let alone the Tesla Semi, which is supposed to have a beefed-up version of this same sensor suite.

This helps keep costs down, but means the technology is more in line with what you’d find powering something like Nissan’s ProPilot driver assistance feature as opposed to Autopilot, or even Audi’s supposedly Level 3 system, which uses similar tech, but relies on LIDAR as well.

Daimler’s truck has more in common with Nissan’s ProPilot system than Tesla’s Autopilot

Keeping with a theme of less is more, there’s also no camera-based monitoring system in the truck to make sure the driver pays attention while using the Level 2 features. Instead, the Cascadia uses a system similar to the one found in Tesla’s cars.

A sensor in the steering column measures resistance applied to the steering wheel. If the driver takes their hands off the wheel while using the lane centering feature, the instrument cluster will, after about 15 seconds, surface a warning that tells them to place their hands back on the wheel. If the driver doesn’t do that, the warning changes from yellow to red. After another 60 seconds, if the driver still hasn’t put their hands back on the wheel, the lane keep assist will turn off.

The new Cascadia is a far cry from a fully autonomous truck, but based on my brief ride, Daimler has refined the technology compared to the prototype version. The prototype swayed on the highway during my two-mile demo ride in 2015, ping-ponging between the lane markers. The new truck, meanwhile, felt locked to the center of the lane during this week’s ride, which followed the same exact route from a few years ago.

A Daimler representative also told me that, while lane centering is on, the driver can even choose where the system places them in the lane. (For example, if a driver is on a tight one-lane highway and wants to avoid clipping oncoming traffic, they could tell the truck to hug the right lane line.) This is another sign that system is maturing from what debuted in 2015, though it’s a small one.

Daimler promised some other modern technologies are coming the new Cascadia, though none of it was on display in the preproduction trucks being used for the demonstration. The company plans to offer an optional 10-inch touchscreen in the dashboard, and a 12-inch digital cluster behind the steering wheel. The truck will be able to receive over-the-air software updates, too.

The Cascadia won’t be as stuffed with tech as the Tesla Semi, nor is it as sleek. But it will be available later this year. Daimler has argued that bringing automation to trucking will help squeeze better fuel efficiency out of the millions of miles that its big rigs cover every year. It would decrease the toll those miles take on the drivers. Most importantly, it could help reduce the some 4,000 fatalities that result from crashes involving these massive hunks of machinery. If all goes well, we might have a sense by the end of this year of whether any of that is true.

TuSimple’s truck relies heavily on cameras, but also uses LIDAR and radar sensors.
TuSimple’s truck relies heavily on cameras, but also uses LIDAR and radar sensors.

Daimler wasn’t the only company showcasing a truck with autonomous tech this week at CES. TuSimple, a startup headquartered in both China and California and backed in part by Nvidia, brought a Navistar truck outfitted with its own tech that founder Xiaodi Hou says can completely drive itself in limited, carefully mapped geographic areas without human intervention. This is what the SAE refers to as Level 4 autonomy, and it’s the same level of self-driving that Waymo is attempting in Arizona right now.

While TuSimple didn’t demonstrate its truck at CES this week, the startup has been making Level 4 test runs for over a year in different areas across the US. It’s also carrying cargo on some of those test runs for around 12 commercial partners — though Hou won’t say which ones just yet.

Daimler might be taking a slow approach to increasing the autonomy of its trucks, but Hou says Level 4 is possible in the near future. “We are confident of launching this thing every day, and it’s been running every day. I think that is very big news to differentiate us from the rest of the other players,” he says.

A representation of the human-machine interface that TuSimple uses in its trucks, which shows what the truck’s sensors and computers are monitoring.
A representation of the human-machine interface that TuSimple uses in its trucks, which shows what the truck’s sensors and computers are monitoring.

The key, according to Hou, is only attempting to operate in those carefully plotted domains. “We only operate within that domain we define. Basically we have pre-mapped the location and we’ve been run through the map and that there’s no surprises to us,” he says.

Besides, Hou says, while Level 2 systems can have benefits, they won’t solve one of the biggest problems facing trucking right now: driver shortages. If TuSimple can get a Level 4 truck on the road sometime in the next few years, even if it’s restricted to certain areas, Hou believes removing the need for a licensed safety driver will help the industry tackle this problem. He also thinks that change will be enough to make TuSimple cash flow positive.

TuSimple carries commercial cargo on some test runs to offset the cost of development

“The difference between the cost of building a more reliable system versus a mediocre assisted driving system is this high,” Hou says, spreading his hands a few feet apart. He then pinches his fingers together. “However the value of your return [on Level 2] is this small.”

For what it’s worth, Daimler’s head of trucking Martin Daum said this past week that his company remains focused on developing highly automated trucks, despite the focus on partial automation. “We have a clear goal 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.”

What’s clear from the presence of these companies at this year’s show is this: a massive German automaker is ready to start augmenting how humans move goods around our country. “We are ready to move boldly forward,” Daum said. Others, like TuSimple, are still testing the outer bounds of what’s possible, while trying to make a sustainable, if limited, business out of it in the short term.

Tesla’s known for being a leader in bringing new technologies to passenger cars. It sparked a move to electric propulsion, triggered a landslide of giant touchscreens, and inspired automakers to develop their own partially automated driver assistance systems.

But by the time it enters the trucking industry with a commercial product, the company will be playing a bit of catch-up, at least with respect to autonomy. If partial or full autonomy becomes a distinguishing factor for companies that sell trucks, Tesla will have to convince customers that Autopilot is better than tech that is already on the road (all while fighting a separate battle: convincing customers that electric propulsion is a viable option in the world of hauling freight). That’s possible, perhaps even likely. It’s just not exactly typical for Tesla.

Photography by Sean O’Kane

Correction: This article mistakenly stated that after 60 seconds of warnings, the driver assistance system would pull the truck to a stop. After the warnings, the lane keep system will disengage.