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Autonomous freight grows as source of 3rd-party capacity

Kodiak Robotics keeps an eye on the robot as it offers 3rd-party freight capacity

Kodiak Robotics and Werner Enterprises traveled 152 consecutive hours in completing four autonomous round-tips from Dallas to Lake City, Florida. (Photo: Kodiak Robotics)

Kodiak Robotics and Werner Enterprises hauled autonomous freight four times round-trip between Dallas and Lake City, Florida, over 152 consecutive hours, the latest evidence that robots could replace human drivers on unpopular long-haul routes. 

With commercialization of driverless trucks still years away, Kodiak slipped its trained safety drivers in and out of the Kenworth T680 cabs as the hours-of-service clock ticked down to the 11-hour limit of operation. The trucks didn’t need a break. Their human supervisors had no choice.

Kodiak generated revenue from the experiment but made no money. Learning is more important than turning a profit at this point, CEO Don Burnette told FreightWaves. Kodiak is also running pilots with U.S. Xpress, 10 Roads Express and CEVA Logistics.

Valuing experience over profit in autonomous trucking

“We did transport the drivers to the locations where they needed to be rested and ready to go, which adds obvious overhead to the cost of running this type of operation,” Burnette said. “But really the goal of this pilot was the operational demonstration.”

By that measure, the pilot succeeded. The autonomous trucks recorded 100% on-time delivery performance across eight unique trips. Werner prepared trailers for Kodiak self-driving trucks to pick up on both ends. The carrier’s local drivers completed the first-mile pickups and last-mile deliveries.

“Working with Kodiak enables us to efficiently incorporate new technologies into our business while giving us a competitive edge,” Chad Dittberner, Werner’s senior vice president of Van/Expedited, said in a news release. 

Werner is a go-to for trucking research and development efforts, and joined Kodiak’s partner development program, which helps carriers set up autonomous freight operations and integrate the Kodiak Driver, the startup’s self-driving system. 

“We’re eager to establish the hybrid model of drivers and ongoing autonomous lanes to create new and unparalleled levels of efficiency while staying focused on Werner’s value of putting safety first,” Dittberner said.

Werner’s trucks provide an early test bed for new technologies from battery electric to fuel cell powertrains as well as natural gas and hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines from Cummins Inc. It advises natural-gas electric powertrain startup Hyliion as part of its Hypertruck Innovation Council.

Werner conducts other autonomous testing with Kodiak competitors Embark Trucks and Aurora Technology, testing a 600-mile route between Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas, with the latter.

Refining autonomous freight hub-to-hub operations

The hub-to-hub model pervades autonomous testing. It is one way autonomous trucking developers combat the perception that robots will take over trucking jobs. Driverless trucks are aimed at the over-the-road routes that have the greatest driver turnover. Jobs created in first- and last-mile driving replace the long-haul positions that few drivers seem to want.

Would Werner or other company drivers become safety drivers while the final safety challenges of driverless trucking are worked out?

“I don’t know if it’s strictly necessary for that to happen because ultimately we want to get to a driverless future,” Burnette said. “We have to build that system. When we can pull the driver, then obviously we won’t have to talk about who the driver is employed by. But it is a conversation we’ve had.”

Adding freight capacity

While Kodiak’s long-term goal is to sell its Kodiak Driver as part of a trucking-as-a-service model, it is fine being a source of third-party capacity today.

“We are carrying extra capacity for them with our drivers and with our assets and with our trucks,” Burnette said. ”Most of these companies have brokerage programs. You want to be able to broker out those loads to third parties in order to fulfill the contracts that you’ve signed and the bids that you’ve won. That’s precisely how Kodiak slots into their existing ecosystem.”

Disclosure: FreightWaves founder and CEO Craig Fuller retains ownership of U.S. Xpress shares through his family trust.

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.