The Six Five “On The Road” at CES 2023. Daniel Newman talks with Joanna Buttler, Head of the Global Autonomous Technology Group at Daimler Truck AG. Their conversation covers:
- Daimler Truck’s involvement in developing Level Four autonomous driving
- Their partnership with Luminar Technologies
- Increasing safety on the highways, freight efficiency, and supply chain
- What we’re seeing in the truck industry for 2023 and beyond
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Daniel Newman: Hey, everybody. Welcome to CES 2023 here in the Luminar booth. I’m Daniel Newman, your host of the Six Five podcast, and we’re on the road here at 2023 CES, as I said, in the West Hall at the Luminar booth. And I’m joined by Joanna Buttler with Daimler Truck today to talk a little bit about what she’s seeing in the truck industry, trucking, autonomous, and so much more. But first and foremost, Joanna, for everybody out there that hasn’t met you before, tell everybody a little bit about the work that you do for Daimler Truck North America.
Joanna Buttler: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for having me. I’m the head of the Autonomous Technology Group at Daimler Truck. We are actually developing Level Four autonomous driving together with two partners. We work with Torque Robotics, who is our in-house partner as well as Waymo to bring autonomous trucks to the market in this decade. In specific, at Daimler Truck, I’m responsible to develop the autonomous driving truck platform. We are developing the Level Four redundant systems and the platform that will enable safe and reliable autonomous driving.
Daniel Newman: I got to ask first and foremost, trucking. Okay, a little backstory on me. I came out of the trucking industry. I’m a tech industry analyst now, but I grew up, my father owned a trucking company, so I actually grew up for a trucking company based in Chicago. We had a few dozen semis. I used to spot the trucks when I was 12 years old, these seven and 11-speed trucks. And I ran away out of the industry. I ran away. I actually ultimately as an adult, I ran away. I’m like, I’m going to go get into a different tech, like semiconductors and chips. It’s all coming back by the way, together now. But I got to ask you, what got you into trucking? What made you decide to get into this and end up leading this part of Daimler’s business?
Joanna Buttler: Well, trucking is really the backbone of the industry. I don’t have to tell you that. Thanks for sharing your story. And I’m just so passionate about the purpose that we serve. We really keep the world moving. We saw it in a bit negative way when the supply chain and trucking is disrupted, it impacts everyone’s lives. So really what gets me up in the morning is making a positive impact on everyone’s lives. And with autonomous driving, I see we can increase safety on our highways, increase freight efficiency, and ultimately keep the supply chain moving.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s super important. And thanks for letting me share my story. I just wonder, because when someone’s like, “I’m doing this,” cars are kind of cool, but trucks are kind of necessary.
Joanna Buttler: Absolutely.
Daniel Newman: And so sometimes I think people are like, well why’d you go that way? And you’re leading such an important thing. And I had the chance recently to ride, and I won’t talk about who it was, but in an autonomous truck around the Silicon Valley, and I was blown away. I laid in the back seat, it was an extended with the bed and I was laying back there. And there was a driver, because it’s the L2 plus assist, but no hands. And I’m just laying there taking photos and I’m like, “Hey, look at me, everybody. I’m in a truck with no driver.” No actual driver. It was good for social media, but in reality, I was super glad there was a guy with a CDL in the seat. That’s a good thing. But let’s just talk a little bit about what you’re seeing. You’re here at CES, you’ve got your partnerships, you’re moving forward, but what brings you here? What are you thinking, and what are you excited about here for autonomous trucking in the future over the next 12 months for 2023?
Joanna Buttler: Yeah, absolutely. I think we see obviously, like Luminar, a lot of the technology providers that are enabling Level Four autonomous driving. Lidar is such a critical component for the safety and reliability of the system and really learning. It’s a constant learning journey for myself. We’re really exploring what’s out there. What I see in the next 12 months when we think about autonomous driving and how it’s going to evolve, it’s really we’re moving into maturing the system. Everyone is testing. You were on this test ride and I’ve done this as well with our own great product with Torque. And it’s an amazing experience by the way. It’s so mind-blowing and it definitely will come just a matter when. But yeah, really maturing the system from our side, from the truck platform side, making it ready to go driverless eventually. And that is really the focus. And then seeing who we can partner with and what all the technologies are out there to support that.
Daniel Newman: Where are you at right now in the journey with Daimler and your two partners? What can you put out on the road today?
Joanna Buttler: We actually have already started delivering our first prototypes to Waymo that are fully redundant and they’re already operating on public roads in MOTU, which is in autonomous mode. And we are testing also actively with Torque Robotics. They’re operating between Albuquerque and Amarillo. And they’re also piloting this technology already with fleet customers, which is super important that we really integrate it seamlessly into our customer’s operations. It’s not a science project. We ultimately want to provide value to the fleets. And getting closer to them and understanding how their business works and how this technology can make their business better is so critical. And there will be a large focus on that even more so this year.
Daniel Newman: Let’s talk a little bit about sensing. In order to do autonomy at any level, there’s different schools of thought, but most of what I’ve seen in trucking and in bigger… well, actually, all vehicles now is multi-sensing approach. There’s camera, there’s radar, there’s lidar. What’s the Daimler perspective on sensing? Which sensing are you investing in? Which are you finding value? Or is it an all-in approach like a lot of the companies are doing?
Joanna Buttler: All of the above. So yeah, absolutely, we believe in multi-sensing and really all these technologies, using them as complimentary technologies to get really the best vision and the best perception of your environment and get really a safe system out there. That’s why we are looking at who are the partners we can work with for serious production also on the lidar side.
Daniel Newman: How quickly do you move from… This is the big question, but I got to ask it. Everyone wants to know when we’re going to be driving down the highway or riding down the highway and we’re going to look up at the big rig and you’re going to see an empty seat and that thing’s just going to be hauling. I know there’s experimental going on in China and some here in the US, but largely it’s still mostly assist. Is it a few years? What’s the perspective on when that starts to turn?
Joanna Buttler: Well, we have set ourselves a goal to enable Level Four driving within this decade. I think we’re well on our way to achieve that, but it’s not going to be tomorrow either. And it is a marathon really, not a sprint. And I think it’s very important that we take the right time to mature the system, to do it safely and prove it out, validate it before we actually really take a driver out of the cab. I think in the next couple of years you still see the safety driver in there within the testing period. But definitely, the ultimate goal would be to enable a system that can drive completely on its own so Level Four.
Daniel Newman: And we’re here sitting at the Luminar booth, obviously a lidar company. And I’m not going to ask you to comment on that specifically, but one of their big narratives is all about safety, saving lives. We talked about sensing, we’ve talked about autonomy, we’ve talked about safety drivers, but if you want to save lives, you got to get things right from the policy to the mapping, to, of course, the sensing and the technologies. What is the perspective that you have on the safety profile? Because in the long run, I think we’ve all agreed that autonomy will mean safer, but in the short run, we still have a lot of infrastructure challenges. You still have a lot of… Until it’s all autonomous, you still have humans and humans create… How much safer does Daimler believe that you can make things? Do you guys have any stats, any data, or just a general perspective on safety and what you’re building?
Joanna Buttler: I think from a general perspective, what is key is to really stay focused, not trying to do it all. We are really focused on hop-to-hop on highway driving in a less complex maybe operational environment and really maturing that to a safe state. And that’s really where we see deploying safety processes. Operational safety is very important. It starts actually within the testing phase. That safety is at the forefront of everything that we do, even when it’s not fully deployed. And then as we are talking about lidar technology, something that’s also critical that we have the right technology that can see far in a distance and can also operate on high highway speeds.
Daniel Newman: As an industry analyst, the one thing I can say is when you know there’s a sensing technology that can meaningfully and dramatically improve the outcomes, you’d say, “Why not?” Except to some extent with what we’re actually seeing in production of passenger vehicles, it’s not been picked up at the scale yet. And we’re seeing prices come down, we’re seeing it become more… But in trucking it feels like there’s going to be no option, there’s no way to not use all… because the insurance risks, the safety risks. I always know growing up, my dad always said to me, “We’re one lawsuit away from bankrupt.” And as a family of a trucking company, it was really true. And so safety has to be, in your world, has to be at the very, very top of what you’re doing.
Joanna Buttler: It drives everything. Absolutely. This is just the entry. And then from there, you start improving performance. You start improving uptime to really bring a product to the market that’s a benefit to our customers.
Daniel Newman: I know you got a lot going on and so I don’t want to take too much more of your time up, but you don’t have a booth here. Your partners are here and so you’re here. But as a fun question, anything you’ve seen walking around, whether it’s here in the automotive hall or just around CES, if you’ve seen anything that’s caught your eyes, that’s really interesting?
Joanna Buttler: Definitely the big Caterpillar. I had to take a picture next to it as well. And just from our side, we don’t have a booth here, but you can see a freight liner with a Waymo Via driver installed in their booth on the Central Plaza. We are really proud of that.
Daniel Newman: I love that you said the Caterpillar, by the way. If I could turn that camera around right now, it’s literally right there and there’s a big line of people. And when I saw that I’m like, “That’s like my entire childhood summed up in one giant Caterpillar.” When I was a little kid, that was all I wanted was that dumb truck dropped off in my cul-de-sac so I could play with it.
Joanna Buttler: And I definitely had to take a picture next to that big tire.
Daniel Newman: That is a big Cat. So. Well, Joanna, I want to thank you so much for joining me here on the Six Five on the road at the Luminar booth. I know you’ve got a lot going on. Very excited to see Daimler continue to innovate and evolve. And really, you said it early, the backbone industry, really, when we get our stuff, all that stuff we want, you can be pretty sure there was a truck that got it to where it had to go.
Joanna Buttler: Absolutely. Thank you so much. This was fun.
Daniel Newman: All right, everybody, hit that subscribe button. We really appreciate you tuning into the Six Five on the road here at CES 2023 in the West Hall at the Luminar booth, sitting next to some pretty cool vehicles. I hope they’re in the shot, but if they’re not, maybe get your eyes in here, check out their Twitter and find out more for yourself. For myself, for the Six Five, and for my bestie that couldn’t join me today, Patrick Moorhead, I got to say goodbye. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll see y’all later.