A few years ago, the autonomous trucking industry was just gaining its footing, with real-world use mostly limited to small-scale pilots.
Many people assumed it would be a long time before driverless trucks would actually make commercial deliveries on a consistent basis, but this reality is approaching quicker than anticipated.
As evidence, you only need to look at Kodiak Robotics, which is bringing autonomous capabilities to the trucking industry with its fleet powered by the Kodiak Driver technology stack.
After making its first commercial delivery in 2019, the company has rapidly progressed to now moving 1 million pounds of freight each week. In fact, Kodiak recently announced it made its 2,500th delivery, a big stepping stone toward launching driverless trucks, without a safety driver, in just a few years.
This past year, in particular, Kodiak has come into its own. In 2022, Kodiak expanded its map sixfold, added nine states to its deployment map and is now moving commercial loads across the southern U.S.
“2022 was a really busy year for us, and if you look at 2021 or any previous year in comparison, 2022 stood as the year that Kodiak really built momentum and gained the trust of the industry,” said Don Burnette, CEO and founder of Kodiak.
In November, Kodiak was awarded the ninth spot on FreightWaves’ 2023 FreightTech 25 for its innovation and disruption, the only long-haul autonomous vehicle (AV) company to be included in this group. The FreightTech 25 are chosen from the companies listed in the FreightTech 100, selected by a group of peer CEOs, industry leaders and investors in freight.
Operational and commercial progress made this banner year possible for Kodiak, as the company raises the bar for autonomous deployment.
Operational and safety advancements unveiled in 2022
Kodiak demonstrated some major advancements in 2022 that have proved practical maintenance of its technology and helped build its safety case.
The company unveiled to the public its proprietary SensorPods, a prebuilt, precalibrated hardware enclosure that contains the sensors required for the Kodiak Driver to monitor its surroundings.
SensorPods are easily accessible, taking the place of a truck’s side-view mirrors, and can be completely removed and replaced without any specialized training, simplifying autonomous truck maintenance. This in turn increases truck utilization, which is a critical metric for carriers. This demonstration shows how replacing a SensorPod is easier and faster than changing a tire.
Alongside this milestone, Kodiak underscored safety as its top priority and core motivator.
Although the company takes rigorous measures to ensure all trucks are maintained to the highest standard before they hit the road, its autonomous trucks need to be prepared for the unexpected. This is why Kodiak made some major safety demonstrations to show how AV tech will make roadways safer for all drivers.
Earlier this year Kodiak displayed the Kodiak Driver’s fallback procedure, a unique on-board system which generates a plan that will bring the truck to a safe stop while the system is working nominally. Should an issue be encountered, whether that be an engine issue or a damaged sensor, the Kodiak Driver’s fallback system enables the truck to promptly and safely pull over in a controlled fashion.
In 2022, Kodiak also showcased its ability to safely handle tire blowouts. Damaged tires pose one of the biggest safety risks for trucks on the road. A blown steer tire in particular can instantly cause a truck to behave erratically and unpredictably. After purposely blowing a steer tire on a closed course, the Kodiak Driver successfully slowed the truck’s speed and came to a stop in its lane, as per the protocol.
“Ultimately, tires are going to get damaged,” Burnette said. “Maintaining precise control of the truck dramatically increases the safety not only for our trucks but also for all the other vehicles on the road. So, this is a hugely significant step in the safety story for autonomous technology, and Kodiak is really the only one that has demonstrated the feasibility of this.”
New relationships powering growth
AV developers are proving the real-world application of autonomous deliveries through public demonstrations and more consistent and longer partnerships with carrier partners.
This is attracting the interest of carriers as they explore how AV tech can be used in their own businesses to solve the pressing challenges the industry faces, like rising transportation costs, safety and sustainability.
“Industry-wide, we’re starting to see carriers think about whose technology, whether Kodiak’s or others, actually fits into their existing fleets, networks and way of doing things,” Burnette said. “These commercial partners are really an indication of how overall the AV industry will integrate with traditional carriers in the coming years.”
Kodiak’s Partnership Deployment Program allows the company to better understand carriers’ pain points, while forming an in-depth roadmap for how this technology will work with their companies and lay out a plan for commercially-viable driverless deliveries.
In 2022, Kodiak announced partnerships with U.S. Xpress, IKEA, CEVA Logistics and 10 Roads Express. These collaborations allow shippers, carriers and service providers to plan for the integration of autonomous technology into their operations while experiencing the safety and efficiency benefits of the technology today.
First use case beyond trucking
Kodiak capped 2022 by announcing its first step into another sphere in addition to trucking.
The company won a $49.9 million, two-year U.S. Department of Defense contract to help automate future U.S. Army ground vehicles. Kodiak’s current tech will help support vehicles designed for reconnaissance, surveillance and other high-risk missions as a part of the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle program.
“We really think this goes toward helping the country and getting people out of harm’s way,” Burnette said. “But it’s also a path for us to increase resiliency and increase redundancy of the Kodiak Driver system, which is going to bolster the safety of our system and the rapid deployment for commercial purposes. We’re very excited to be working with the U.S. Army on this initiative.”
Looking ahead, Kodiak is planning to build on the gains of ’22, broadening its fleets and operations.
“We’re going to continue to expand our footprint going forward, and we’re really excited to see how that deployment strategy comes into focus in 2023,” Burnette said.