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Daimler Trucks using NM to test self-driving vehicles

An employee wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus attaches a Mercedes emblem to a Mercedes-Benz S-class car at the company’s plant in Sindelfingen, Germany, in April. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

Daimler Trucks and allied vehicle software company Torc Robotics announced Thursday the expansion of testing for self-driving trucks to public roads in New Mexico along major long-haul freight routes.

The companies have established a new testing center in Albuquerque, as they begin automated runs for 18-wheel vehicles with autonomous driving technology on public highways – supported by a human driver and a safety conductor.

Daimler’s Autonomous Technology Group has taken aim at commercializing self-driving trucks within a decade, and the new testing location complements ongoing research on roadways in Virginia with milder weather and fewer steep hills.

“The reason that we started the test center in Southwest is, one, there’s a lot of cargo that gets transported in that region,” Torc Robotics CEO Mike Fleming said. “We’re not really faced with severe snow and ice like we find it the Northeast, and at the same time, the environmental terrain is a little bit easier as well.”

The weather is just one reason some local economic development leaders say New Mexico could be a hotbed for self-driving vehicles. Annemarie Henton, vice president of business development and marketing for Albuquerque Economic Development, said Albuquerque’s grid system works to its advantage, as does its relatively light traffic.

“For companies that are trying to prove out technology via testing, there’s a lot of different ways for them to safely do that in a place like New Mexico,” Henton said.

Arizona already serves as a major testing ground for autonomous vehicles, including a public-private partnership involving major public universities that was announced in 2018. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s self-driving vehicle testing privileges in March 2018 in the wake of a pedestrian fatality in a Phoenix suburb.

Daimler’s testing routes in New Mexico are not publicly disclosed, though the trucks are prominently labeled as Daimler autonomous-driving vehicles.

The on-board, self-driving technology keeps trucks on track by using a combination of sensors that employ radar, cameras and lasers for measuring distances.

In a news release, the companies said all automated runs require both a safety conductor and a safety driver who holds a commercial driver’s license and undergoes special training in extreme vehicle dynamics and automated systems.

Fleming said that engineering challenges in autonomous trucking revolve around responses to other moving vehicles.

“The real challenge comes when we have bad actors or other vehicles on the road doing things that they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “When you have one bad actor, it’s not that complicated. But when you have clusters of bad actors, things become much more challenging and difficult. One of the things that we’ve done a lot of time doing is figuring out what’s the most appropriate action or behavior in some of these complex situations.”

Torc says it has tested its self-driving vehicle system in many states in the U.S., including a cross country trip in 2017.

Daimler did not disclose the specific location of its New Mexico facility, but spokeswoman Anja Weinert described it as being located near the Albuquerque International Sunport. The organization is currently hiring for a variety of positions, including test engineers and safety conductors, Weinert said.

The New Mexico research center suggests an increasing commitment to autonomous driving by Daimler Trucks & Buses, which delivered roughly a half-million trucks and buses to customers in 2019.

Journal staff writer Stephen Hamway contributed to this report.