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Autonomous VehiclesNewsTechnologyTop Stories

Can Kodiak Robotics compete with the big boys of autonomous trucking?

Now ready for commercialization, latecomer has a lot of catching up to do

Kodiak Robotics is one of several Silicon Valley autonomous trucking software developers. But it gets less attention than players that started earlier. It also lacks the fundraising and manufacturer partnerships that competitors have.

TuSimple’s public trading debut, the reputational credit given to Google-backed Waymo Via and partner-rich Aurora Innovation crowd out Kodiak. China-backed Plus generates significantly more headlines. More recently, Embark Trucks has, too.

“I think the technology story hasn’t really gotten a tremendous amount of coverage over the last year and a half, two years, somewhat sadly, from this technologist’s perspective,” Kodiak co-founder Don Burnette told FreightWaves.

Burnette a pioneer but Kodiak a latecomer

As a master’s student in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 2000s, Burnette was among a pioneering group of self-driving technologists associated with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) self-driving vehicle competitions.

Burnette worked with Chris Urmson as a technical leader on Google’s self-driving car team before Urmson went on to co-found Aurora. Burnette co-founded now-defunct Ottomotto LLC in 2016. It was acquired by Uber and shuttered two years later. He left before the doors closed and started Mountain View, California-based Kodiak in 2018 with venture capitalist Paz Eshel.

Kodiak Robotics founders Don Burnette and Paz Eshel. in 2018 (Photo: Kodiak Robotics)

Kodiak is the latest entry to the self-driving truck race, coming three years after TuSimple and Embark Trucks, two years after Plus, and a year after Aurora. Waymo Via traces its roots to the 2009 beginning of the Google self-driving car program that Burnette worked on for six years. 

“They’ve been around for significantly longer,” Burnette said of the competition. “They raised a lot more capital early on.  They had the luxury of doing a bunch of marketing and media push and all these kinds of things. We haven’t had that luxury.”

Features and demonstrations

Kodiak’s Level 4 high-automation software recognizes and reacts to construction zones, stalled vehicles, merging traffic and vehicle cut-ins. It operates in inclement weather, including rain, “which a lot of people always talk about,” Burnette said.

In January, Kodiak completed 800 driver-monitored miles without a single intervention. Now it is focusing on demonstrating those features and statistically showing the robot truck performs better than a human driver.

“That’s the process we’re in today, and it’s going to take a long time,” Burnette said. “I would put our trucks’ performance head to head with any other player, no matter how much money they’ve spent or how long they have been around.”

TuSimple plans a driverless pilot in Arizona in the fourth quarter this year. State transportation officials and law enforcement will be watching. 

Kodiak is “not close to pulling the driver,” Burnette said, comparing the state of autonomous trucking to a baseball game in its first inning. The winner of the game will be the company that removes the driver safely, not necessarily first. 

“Those who try to rush it, who may be trying to do stuff before they have the proper redundancy in their system, and get out there, are not doing it safely and responsibly,” he said. “We will always be safe and responsible and build things to automotive-grade quality before we remove the driver.”

Trailing in money and partners

Other than a $40 million Series A capital raise in 2018, Kodiak lacks the hundreds of millions in financial backing and the definitive partnerships with truck manufacturers that Waymo Via (Daimler Trucks North America); Aurora (PACCAR and Volvo) and TuSimple (Navistar and parent company TRATON SE) have lined up.

“The nature of this industry is overlapping partnerships across multiple parts of the business,” Burnette said. “I guess what I’m saying is ultimately you can have all the partnership agreements in the world [but] if you don’t ultimately solve the technical challenge, it’s never going to matter.”

Kodiak is building the data backup to prove its case with revenue-generating freight loads in Texas where 15 of its 75 employees work. The rest are based in Mountain View. Kodiak laid off 20% of its staff during the first wave of COVID shutdowns. Burnette’s LinkedIn profile says the company is hiring.

Kodiak uses Kenworth T680 trucks. And it interacts with Kenworth parent PACCAR Inc. But PACCAR points to Aurora as its autonomous truck development partner. Kodiak also works with Tier 1 braking and steering systems suppliers, names Burnette would not divulge.  

“We’ve been talking to a lot of small and medium-sized carriers,” he said. “The top mega carriers that everybody knows and loves to talk about are only a small percentage of the overall market. So we’re really looking to democratize autonomy. 

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in the Kodiak system that we’re planning over the next three to five years. So, I think you’re going to see some announcements that hopefully will change the tune and tenor of yourself and others in the industry who are observing.”

Stand-alone survivability

Kodiak has the commercialization strategy to independently survive a likely shakeout, Burnette said.. No merger. At least not now.

“I don’t think six [companies] are going to succeed,” Burnette said. “I think there’s room for a handful of players. This is not a winner-take-all space. Just like the trucking, shipping and freight industry today. It’s the opposite of a winner-take-all. That’s not going to change when autonomy hits the road.”

But a pivot into other autonomous applications might be necessary.

“Right now we are in the age of consolidation. The trend is towards strategic acquisition,” Mike Ramsey, Gartner Inc. vice president and smart mobility analyst, told FreightWaves. “If they can’t find a buyer, then they need very good partnerships to help get demonstrations of their tech without having to foot the entire bill. 

“If that doesn’t work, they will have to shift their strategy towards adjacencies in AV, like yard or warehouse management or construction or off-road.”

Kodiak recently received a multiyear R&D grant to develop autonomous vehicles for the U.S. Air Force. at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. That might expand into creating autonomous vehicles for the military branch’s Flightline of the Future.

“Kodiak is not going to stop at just long-haul trucking,” Burnette said. “We’re eventually going to work on autonomous systems throughout the ecosystem and throughout the transportation market.”

Kodiak Robotics hits milestone in driverless trucking

Kodiak Robotics releases safety report on self-driving technology

Kodiak Robotics lays off 20% of its staff 

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.

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