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Kodiak Robotics goes lightweight on mapping for autonomous trucks

Knowing where roadways change is more important than trees and billboards

Kodiak Robotics is using a lightweight version of mapping for autonomous trucks, capturing just critical roadway information. (Image: Kodiak Robotics)

Kodiak Robotics is taking a lightweight approach to mapping the highways it drives autonomously, reasoning that roadway changes make high-definition maps obsolete as soon as they are created.

The autonomous trucking software startup recently mapped 5,400 miles of freeway on a single driver followed by quality checks. The focus on where highways change and connect allowed Kodiak to complete a nearly 5,600-mile loop hauling freight for 10 Roads Express, the nation’s largest long-haul carrier of mail for the U.S. Postal Service.

The route of pickups and drop-offs traveled from San Antonio to the San Francisco Bay Area to Jacksonville, Florida, and back to San Antonio. Safety drivers monitored the Level 4 high-autonomy system. But the journey took just 114 hours because the only stops needed were for fuel and driver changes.

Lightweight mapping

“Our unique lightweight mapping system allowed us to expand into Florida in a fraction of the time it would take to build traditional AV maps, enabling us to service some of the nation’s busiest coast-to-coast freight lanes,” said Don Burnette, Kodiak co-founder and CEO.

In an interview with FreightWaves, Burnette said the sparse map approach is safer than high-definition maps, created by painstakingly capturing every tree, overpass and lane stripe. 

“The map is great when it’s accurate,” Burnette said. “But the moment the road changes or there’s construction, the map is worse than not being there. It’s actually lying to you.

“We build a map that really just represents the lane structure. It just has lane-level connectivity, the bare minimum that you need in order to navigate a long trip. Where do these lanes branch? Where do they come together? And how do they connect?”

Combined with other developments, such as falling back and pulling to the side of the road when it encounters trouble, Kodiak is taking on longer stretches of road. The intent of autonomous trucks is to move freight more efficiently by eventually removing the human driver. 

Proof of concept

“We are committed to exploring all opportunities to create better jobs for our drivers while providing exceptional service to our customers,” Wayne Hoovestol, CEO of 10 Roads Express, said in a press release. “By partnering with Kodiak now, [we]can build the operational expertise we need to efficiently integrate autonomous trucks into our fleet in the coming years.”

Kodiak’s long run for 10 Roads Express was a proof of concept. Kodiak carried the mail for revenue, but it does not have a full-fledged commercial relationship, Burnette said.

“We got to go really long distances with our truck while moving along their relay network,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to stress test some of our new mapping technologies and really show that, ‘Hey, this works.’”

Establishing autonomous service along the I-10 corridor to Jacksonville is one of several recent Kodiak expansions. It recently added human-supervised commercial operations between Dallas and Oklahoma City with Ceva Logistics. Kodiak also hauls between Dallas and Atlanta for U.S. Xpress.

Kodiak has been delivering freight daily between Dallas and Houston since mid-2019 and between Dallas and San Antonio since mid-2021.

A red Kodiak Robotics truck with a U.S. Xpress trailer.
Kodiak Robotics is hauling freight with supervised autonomy from Dallas to Atlanta. (Photo: Kodiak Robotics)

U.S. XPress and Kodiak running Dallas-to-Atlanta autonomous trucking pilots

Kodiak hauling autonomous loads for Ceva from Texas to Oklahoma City

Kodiak Robotics to double autonomous trucking efforts with $125M in new capital

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.