Making Autonomous Trucks a Reality: A Q&A with Frank Mabry from Torc Robotics
There has been a great deal of interest in autonomous vehicles over the years, and we’ve never been closer to seeing this technology hit the road. The heavy-duty trucking space faces unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to bringing this technology to the market, with amazing potential benefits.
One of the companies that is making self-driving trucks a reality is Torc Robotics, a company focused on commercializing Level 4 autonomous Class 8 trucks. Level 4 autonomous vehicles can operate without human intervention in defined areas, environments, or conditions.
Later this month, Torc will be exhibiting at our Insight Tech Conference + Expo. To get the scoop on their involvement at Insight, as well as what’s new in autonomous truck technology, we recently sat down with Frank Mabry, senior analyst – corporate strategy at Torc to learn more.
We’d love to learn more about your career path – how did you get into the transportation industry? What do you and your team work on?
I started in transportation back in the early 90s with Ryder. I was recruited by someone I worked with at my first job out of college (a rental car company), and I ended up working in third-party logistics for a very long time with some well-known companies like Ryder, U.S. Xpress and more.
I’ve got a lot of experience in 3PL, truckload, and less-than-truckload, and I’ve worked in logistics for both big and small companies with anywhere from one truck to hundreds of trucks.
In 2007, I moved over to the technology sector with a company in Dallas, which was purchased shortly thereafter by TMW Systems – which is, of course, now part of Trimble Transportation. At TMW, I was the director of professional services for the optimization division for 10 or 11 years, and then moved over to PeopleNet (also now Trimble) where I served as a key account manager for a few companies up in Northwest Arkansas.
From there, I did a second stint with Ryder as technology manager for their freight management systems, where I helped build a parcel system for their customers and managed about $3 billion in freight, moving around 2,500 parcel shipments a day. After that, one of my connections introduced me to Torc, and I joined the corporate strategy team where I help advise different groups within the company on how and where we’re going to commercialize, which partners we should work with (like Trimble), what’s next, and more.
We’ve got a wonderful team! Everyone has their specialties, and we just go out there and get it done. I love talking to people and doing research, and I like being able to give our executives good information so they can make really smart decisions.
Tell us more about Torc. How is Torc driving autonomous truck technology forward?
Torc has been around for a very long time. We were one of the first companies to really get into autonomous vehicles. We were in DARPA’s Urban Challenge in 2007, where Torc came in third.
We’ve progressed a lot since then! Today, we focus solely on developing and testing autonomous Class 8 vehicles, as an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck North America. We chose heavy-duty trucks because of the impact we believe our technology can have for freight transportation and road safety.
I have my CDL license, and I can tell you from experience, our trucks are absolutely amazing in what they do and how they do it. It’s very good technology – it’s a very smooth ride. The autonomous driving system knows how to seamlessly increase following distance when needed, it knows which exit it’s going to take and how soon it needs to change lanes to get there, and it does it all without being “herky-jerky.” On one test ride, we actually had a car pull in front of us too close, and instead of slamming on the brakes, like probably I or another professional driver may have done, it just seamlessly increased the space between the tractor and the car. It’s refreshing!
Something that differentiates us from our competitors is that even though we’re in this buzzworthy “autonomous vehicles” space, you probably haven’t heard of us – we’ve really focused on having our heads down in order to perfect our technology to make sure that when we’re ready to go commercial, it’s extremely well-tested and extremely safe.
You’ll never hear us talking about a specific date of when this tech will be ready to hit the market – the answer is that when it’s safe, that’s when we’ll be in the market. Our mission is to perfect the technology to make sure it’s truly ready for consumption.
What are some of the trends in autonomous vehicles you’re seeing right now? Where is this technology headed?
A trend, if you want to call it that, that we’re starting to see is that many of the other companies that had originally announced projected dates for when their technology would hit the market, are starting to back off of those dates a bit. They’ve started adopting a similar mindset to the one we’ve had all along: it will be ready when it’s safe.
There are still a lot of hurdles yet to get over to make autonomous driving a reality. A couple of the big ones are that every component has to be automotive certified before it can be on the vehicle; and government regulations for commercializing autonomous vehicles have to catch up.
The good news is that we’re starting to see some progress on the government side. There has been new legislation in Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and just recently, Kansas authorized autonomous vehicles to operate in the state.
Although it may be slow, progress is being made. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said “No way, there are too many obstacles,” but there are so many very smart people working on this problem, writing the software and designing these trucks. It’s pretty awesome.
What are some of the most common questions people might have about autonomous technology, particularly for commercial vehicles?
One of the biggest questions or concerns we’ve gotten over the years is that self-driving trucks will take drivers’ jobs. This really couldn’t be further from the truth. There will always be a need for truck drivers – we currently have a shortage of drivers, and the amount of freight demand will only continue to increase.
I’ve been in transportation for a very long time. The driver shortage is real, and it’s probably always going to be. We’re seeing many companies shifting to the “hub and spoke” model to get their drivers on a more regular schedule and home to their families at the end of the day, which is why Torc is really focused on the middle mile.
What our technology will do is enhance the industry by providing more options for expanding freight networks and serving customers in better and different ways. We’re here to help companies think smarter and I provide new options for customers. Another thing we get asked about pretty often is about our direct integration with the chassis of the truck. For autonomous driving, it’s very, very key to be seamlessly integrated directly with the vehicle. Because we’re developing our technology directly with the engineers at Daimler, one of the largest truck manufacturers in the world, we’re building in redundant systems for safety and not just “bolting on” anything.
For example, in a redundant system, if one steering system gives out, another one takes over. Or if we’re applying the brakes, the tech is directly integrated to the braking system. Everything is synced and designed to work like it’s supposed to, directly within the system. With other tech, you may be purchasing something that is added later as an accessory; with our tech, when it comes off the Freightliner assembly line, it’s Torc-powered and all you need to do is load the freight and get on the road.
As mentioned above - we’re excited that you’ll be exhibiting at the Insight Tech Conference this year. What will Torc’s presence be like at the show?
We’re planning to have our systems set up so we can show attendees how autonomous equipment will fit in with their current operations. We hope to be able to enlighten the industry on what autonomous vehicles are, how they’ll be commercialized and how it all can seamlessly integrate.
I have been to Insight many, many times in the past – I even led some of the sessions! So it’ll be good to see a lot of familiar faces in Orlando this year.
For more information about Torc Robotics, visit torc.ai. To register for the Insight Tech Conference, Aug. 14-17, 2022, in Orlando, Florida, visit transportation.trimble.com/insight-2022.