An Interview with David Leichner, Medium
The automotive industry has been disrupted recently with new exciting technologies that have made cars and trucks much smarter, much safer, and much more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.
What other exciting disruptive technologies will we see in the next few years? How much longer will fossil fuel-powered cars be produced? When will we see fully autonomous vehicles? Can we overcome the challenge of getting stuck in traffic? As cars become “moving computers”, do we have to worry about people hacking our cars? How else will our driving experience be different over the next five years? To address these questions, Authority Magazine started a new interview series about “Exciting Leading Edge Technologies That Are Making Cars & Trucks Smarter, Safer, and More Sustainable.” In this series, we are talking to leaders of automotive companies, automotive tech companies, EV companies, and other tech leaders who can talk about the vehicles of the future. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Vaughan Schmidt.
Prior to joining Torc Robotics in 2022, Dr. Peter Vaughan Schmidt was the head of the Autonomous Technology Group for Daimler Truck for three years. Before leading that organization, he managed the strategy organization for Daimler Truck, where his focus areas included the Chinese market, autonomous technology, electrification, connectivity and digital transformation.
Dr. Schmidt also previously led Daimler’s global product and platform management for medium and heavy truck engines worldwide, as well as holding roles in engine production and plant management.
Before joining Daimler, Dr. Schmidt was a principal and consultant at McKinsey & Company serving the automotive industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in the automotive industry?
I graduated with my Doctorate degree in Physics with no plan to join the automotive industry. Initially, I saw a career in academia first and industry research centers next, but eventually fell into a role as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, had a ton of fun and a steep learning curve, and moved up the ladder to an Associate Principal of Automotive and Manufacturing. This was the catalyst for me to join Daimler AG in 2005, starting as a project manager, where I developed into my ultimate role as the Head of Autonomous Technology for Daimler Trucks for three years.
When Torc Robotics became an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck AG in 2019, I worked very closely with the founding CEO to help drive the initiatives of our joint approach to develop and commercialize autonomous technology. In 2022, I became the CEO of Torc Robotics to help build on Torc’s long tradition of autonomous innovation and improving the safety of freight delivery.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This is a difficult choice between my first ride in an autonomous truck at Torc’s Blacksburg office in September 2019 and the amazing amount of progress that had been made between that experience and my first Albuquerque, New Mexico Torc demo ride in 2022. In the fall of 2019, Torc and Daimler had just officially joined forces in our ground-breaking partnership. It was so cool to experience a class 8-truck driving autonomously.
While you could tell there was room to improve, I thought it was already a pretty good system and saw it had such massive potential to change the future of trucking. But then, being able to see the evolution from my first demo ride, to how much better the truck performed after Torc’s tremendous growth and laser focus on this specific use case in the intervening years was just incredible. I still get excited every time I visit our fleet testing operation in the Southwest U.S., especially when I get to ride along with our crews in the trucks. The energy and enthusiasm of Torc’rs for developing the future of trucking is contagious!
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Our biggest project right now is bringing our autonomous trucking technology onto the roads. By conducting long-haul drive tests using Daimler trucks carrying concrete blocks and customer pilots with Schneider and CR England to move real cargo, we are able to work towards a safe, sustained, long-haul innovation in the freight industry, which is our top priority to ensure the technology is inherently safe before we place it on the market.
The Torc technology uses “experiences” to help it better adjust to how it drives. It’s one thing for a truck to learn how to drive in a desert with limited cars around, but it’s another for the technology to know how to adjust to aggressive drivers and human error. Through the sensors, the technology learns how to address these situations and better react to them in the future. However, testing can take up to a year to perfect as each test must run efficiently and effectively before it hits the market. If the technology does not pass one test, we rerun it until it’s correct, which, depending on the issue, can take a year or more. To help with this testing, we have a testing facility in Albuquerque, NM, Software Engineering and Development Center in Austin, TX and a Technology and Software Development Center in Stuttgart, Germany.
How do you think this might change the world?
Torc’s focus is helping the freight industry thrive by providing the safest, most reliable and most cost-effective trucking solution on the market. In doing so, Torc has the ability to help to improve the quality of life for all. Medicines and supplies for hospitals, food to keep grocery stores stocked, fuel for your local gas station and keeping the global economy going — these are just some of the societal benefits of freight. Autonomous trucking has the added benefits of being more environmentally friendly, providing cost-efficiencies for our customers and making the roads safer for all road users.
Autonomous trucking can also create more jobs in the industry. It is a common misconception that autonomous driving removes jobs, but it’s quite the opposite. Autonomous trucking is created to help relieve drivers from long-haul drives that keep them away from home for week-long stretches and address the growing truck driver shortage. Autonomous trucking has the ability to create new and different jobs in the industry — across development, testing, training and operations — and allow drivers to take on shorter, less intense routes. These new jobs will require people with a range of skills, training and education and provide opportunities to even more people and offer a better quality of life.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I’m a “glass half-full” person, so while there are potential risks and challenges with any technology, I prefer to focus on the mitigations we can implement to manage them. Autonomous trucking has so much positive potential — from the speed of delivery to creating more cost-effectiveness, to better use of assets and making the highways a safer place. All of this is only possible with careful management of the technology and living by our core value of doing the right thing. It’s important to note that while Torc is in the development stage of our autonomous technology, the technology is never tested without a safety driver overseeing the operation of the truck. Our safety drivers have extensive training and experience and provide important feedback in the development of the technology.
Through our Torc Autonomous Advisory Council (TAAC), we are partnering with many of the leading companies in the freight industry to make sure we have the brightest and most experienced minds helping to inform our product design and account for those challenges.
What are a few things that most excite you about the automotive industry as it is today? Why?
It’s exciting that the entire industry is transforming — from internal combustion to electric or alternative fuels; from very manual systems to very connected, “smart” systems throughout the vehicle and user interfaces; and from 100% human-operated to human-operated supported by driver assistance systems and on the way to autonomous operations (i.e., SAE Level 4, high driving automation). The automotive industry has undergone more transformation in the last decade than in the previous three combined — technologies such as advanced driver assistance systems have become more widely available and are often looked at as a new standard in transportation transformation.
I also love being part of helping to advance the future of the automotive industry and drive positive change that creates benefits beyond the technology — in Torc’s case, fleet and logistics — and thereby making an even bigger positive impact on our communities.
It’s an exciting time to be in the industry. Torc is developing autonomous solutions to meet the challenges of an industry with an ever-increasing demand for goods. Torc believes its technology can immensely impact freight transportation. Additionally, it can offer a new set of possibilities for fleet managers and freight professionals across the country by increasing fleet utilization, shipping loads faster and improving driver satisfaction by allowing truckers the opportunity to work more local routes, closer to home.
What are a few things that most concern you about the automotive industry as it is today? What must be done to address these challenges?
Safety must remain a paramount topic for all in the automotive industry, especially for those of us who are creating new technologies. For autonomous trucking, safety requires going beyond just building a safe product. Collaboration with partners and stakeholders from across the ecosystem to inform the full lifecycle and customer journey is required to achieve a safe solution.
As an industry, we have come a long way over the last several decades in applying data and analytics to improve and assess the safety performance of automotive vehicles and automotive systems. Torc’s data pipeline and analytics are critical for measuring our performance to support the development and obtain the evidence to prove our capability. We use a range of predictive indicators to measure our performance and will continue to employ these techniques after deployment for safe operation and continuous improvement.
Most of the industry has implemented a Safety Management System which provides a systematic approach to how safety information is valued, shared and handled within a company. The industry needs to come together and consider ways to share best practices and learning from these programs.
As we work together as an industry towards the goal of making our roads safer, it’s crucial we don’t put the carriage before the horse. While public road testing is a necessary step in the development of autonomous technology, testing must be conducted with care, using best practices and with the recognition that it is a public road shared by all road users.
Based on your vantage point as an insider in the automotive industry, what other exciting disruptive technologies will we see in the next few years? Can you share some of the new developments that will make vehicles smarter, safer, and more sustainable?
Through our partnership with Daimler Truck, we work hand in hand in developing real-world applications to test in Daimler fleets. Some of the technology I’m most excited about is how we are leveraging our Freightliner Cascadia development trucks and prototypes. Torc develops the Automated Driving System (ADS), which includes perception and behavior algorithms, high-definition maps and the use of a proprietary localization system. Torc’s autonomous trucks are positioned and localized by our Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and real-time positioning technology developed by Torc to position the vehicle on high-definition map features. Additionally, Torc’s integrated mapping allows the vehicle to understand where it is in the world, from driving lanes to drivable surfaces.
As for the hardware used, the autonomous trucks include a sensor suite to “see” the environment. Our current system uses integrated cameras, long and short-range Lidar and long and short-range radar to allow for the system to detect its surroundings in real-time. This sensor suite utilizes the strengths of each component, provides a 3D picture of the environment, detects objects and calculates the movement of vehicles around the truck for prediction and decision-making.
In your opinion, how much longer will fossil fuel-powered cars be produced? When do you think EVs will be the majority of vehicles in use? Can you explain?
Our Daimler Truck colleagues have a great phrase for their approach to this transition: “moving at the speed of right.” Only by listening to our customers and delivering the products that they need can we help shape the future of sustainable transportation, especially in a diverse and dynamic industry like freight.
I wouldn’t want to speculate yet on when we’ll reach that tipping point to a majority of EVs or, even more exciting, autonomous EVs, but I am really looking forward to working with our partners to create a safer, more efficient freight ecosystem.
When do you think we will see fully autonomous vehicles deployed in a mainstream way? What do you think are the main barriers to reaching that stage?
We at Torc like to think the autonomous trucking landscape is a marathon, not a sprint, but do see autonomous trucks becoming mainstream by the end of the decade. Where we are today is much different than where we were in 2007 and that is largely due to the years of development that have taken place, but most importantly the system will not be released until it is inherently safe and reliable. Safety, functionality and dependability are at the forefront of all development within Torc’s autonomous fleets.
The main barrier we are seeing to reach this stage is acceptance from the public. Moving freight is a complex ecosystem and we are laser-focused on one piece of this system. We need the right people to relate with the product, see the problems that we need to solve and understand the positive impact it will have on safety, society and the industry.
How else will our driving experience be different over the next five years?
Our hope is that over the next five years, the roads will be an increasingly safer place for all road users with autonomous trucks and other vehicles equipped with automated driving systems as part of the solution and becoming more commonplace. Our goal is to design our product for ease of adoption and integration with the current on-the-road fleet operations by adding capacity in the areas with the most needs, adding a force multiplier for scaling, improving fuel economy and greater operability predictability. Although Torc is working to deploy automated driving systems, our goal is not to remove jobs from the trucking workforce. We have the ability to create new jobs over the next five years and provide drivers with the power to choose routes that are closer to their families.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Automotive Industry?”
- Flexibility — When I was a student, autonomy didn’t really exist, but now look where we are! I certainly didn’t imagine when I was first entering the industry that I would become CEO of a company seeking to be the first to a scalable, profitable autonomous truck product!
- Curiosity — Being open to different ideas and points of view is critical to growth. Always be willing to learn — whether about new technology, from employee perspectives, or about related industries. The rapid rate of technology development means that every industry is changing faster than in the past — the more you learn, the better equipped you will be to adapt and move forward.
- Global perspective — The automotive industry is truly a global marketplace. Whether you are helping evaluate and source production components, developing code, or interacting with customers, you will almost certainly be working with distributed teams and across cultures.
- People Skills — Technical expertise is obvious for this industry, but the most effective leaders I know across all industries, not just automotive, also understand how to influence, motivate and/or develop the great talent that surrounds them at every stage of their career.
- A Strong Drive for Results — Take personal ownership in delivering on commitments to your team, your professional partners and your customers. The best leaders know the end goal and focus the passion and persistence of those around them on solutions to reach that goal.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Autonomous trucking! I’m really fortunate to already be in this industry and I really believe that the product we are building will drive the future of freight. Our autonomous trucking solution will allow the fleets to provide better services to consumers, such as faster delivery times or less expensive delivery options — first in the U.S. and then around the globe.