Self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics recently celebrated six months of running commercial loads in Texas, marking a milestone for the Mountain View, California, company that was founded in 2018 by industry veterans.
With a facilities center in North Texas, the company is making daily deliveries between Dallas and Houston, fueling a business model that combines technological innovation with a carrier service offering autonomous trucks driving on “middle-mile” highway routes. A safety driver is behind the wheel at all times.
“On the one hand, we are a technology company; we’re developing autonomous technology with the hope of eventually being able to remove the safety driver,” said Kodiak co-founder and COO Paz Eshel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. “But the other important thing is we’re actually building a logistics company, which is why it’s so important to make deliveries for shippers working within an ecosystem that exists today.”
Eshel and Don Burnette, Kodiak’s co-founder and CEO, spoke with FreightWaves about the shipping milestone, their approach to autonomy, and how they feel about the fierce battle among startups and legacy players to get commercial, fully autonomous trucks on the road.
“Everybody likes to be the first, but we don’t really see this as a competition,” said Burnette, whose previous experience in the self-driving space includes co-founding Otto, the autonomous trucking company that Uber acquired in 2016 only to shut it down two years later.
Although the team has made considerable strides in two short years, Kodiak is taking a steady approach to building a sustainable trucking business. Central to that effort is assembling “an automotive grade production quality system that can be built at scale, placing emphasis on testing and validation not just of the software but systems engineering,” Burnette explained.
“It’s very much akin to what you would find in the automotive and aerospace industry, how they built traditional vehicles, spacecraft and airplanes,” he said. The process involves “a tremendous amount of fault analysis and testing and validation into every subcomponent of the system,” from hardware, to cabling, power, the compute stack and more.
Kodiak has a fleet of 10 trucks but the team declined to say how many were actually involved in the daily deliveries. The company doesn’t build its own vehicles but instead equips Kenworth models with aftermarket hardware and software.
“We are autonomy experts, but we think of ourselves as integration experts,” Burnette said. The original equipment manufacturers and suppliers, he said, have “decades and decades of experience” building robust and reliable platforms, “and so we want to take advantage of their expertise and work hand in hand with those players to make sure we are doing things the right way.”
One of a handful of startups seeking to automate the long haul, Kodiak, a relative newcomer, is not the only one to move freight for customers. San Francisco-based Embark is running commercial loads from Los Angeles to Arizona. Another competitor, TuSimple, has partnered on pilot projects with the U.S. Postal Service and UPS, with the latter taking a stake in the San Diego- and China-based company.
That said, Kodiak is one of the few with aspirations to become a carrier, and at least for now, the team is feeling flush, even as it keeps a close eye on the competition it professes not to care much about. The company grew from 15 to 85 employees in 2019, and the executives said its freight-hauling service boasts a 100% on-time delivery rate. (Citing nondisclosure agreements, Kodiak declined to reveal the names of the handful of customers it works with.)
Like some of the other startups, Kodiak is focusing on the middle-mile segment of the long haul — the highway portion of the shipping lane. That segment is considered much easier to automate than the first- and last-mile segments, which involve much more complex urban driving conditions.
Asked about lessons learned from the past six months, Burnette said the issues that came up were less about software — e.g., perception systems like cameras and lidar — and more about the operational aspects.
“Everyone knows you need [the software] but you don’t necessarily know how to interact with shipping partners, how to actually address the shipping pain points,” Burnette said.
The operational challenges start at a transfer hub, the staging area near the highway where the team swaps the trailer from a traditional truck onto an autonomous vehicle. The self-driving truck must be able to navigate the transfer stations, get on the on-ramp, merge onto and drive down the highway, and then pull off on the other side.
As much as the company relies on real-world driving, Kodiak also conducts a tremendous amount of testing and development in a sophisticated simulation environment. One reason for that is safety.
“For every mile we test on public roads, we expose ourselves and we expose folks around us to that testing,” Burnette said. “We want to be responsible with the number of miles that we are driving.”
Kodiak’s emphasis on safety — in practice and rhetoric — is echoed by other autonomous trucking outfits and reflects shifting attitudes toward autonomous vehicles as concerns among the public and regulators emerge as a huge impediment to getting the vehicles on the road.
Driven in part by high-profile accidents involving self driving vehicles, the preoccupation with safety has replaced some of the hype that used to dominate the discussion around self-driving cars and trucks. Whereas the focus as recently as one year ago was about the innovative technology and its imminent deployment, many experts now predict self-driving passenger cars are years, even decades away.
The calculus is somewhat different for autonomous trucks. Eshel most recently headed up the autonomous vehicle project at Battery Ventures, a firm that led Kodiak’s $40 million Series A round in 2018. Investors continue to be excited about startups that have a clear business case, he said, and trucking fits the bill, given the scale of the market and that “it’s a much more structured environment than other applications.”
Looking ahead, the company plans to expand its customer and driver base (it currently employs 10) in the coming year. Kodiak will continue to utilize human drivers on the first and last mile.
As the business grows, the founders said, the mission remains the same: to bring the benefits of autonomous trucking to the market.
“We’re not just building trucks for the sake of building trucks,” Eshel explained. “We believe it’s going to provide efficiency in terms of how goods get from point A to point B. People are going to be able to get their packages faster than ever. We are going to see fewer accidents, and we’re also going to see a big impact on the environment and fuel savings.
“We look forward to what we envision when the technology comes to life.”