- Kodiak Robotics has successfully completed “disengage-free” deliveries on a 205-mile stretch of Texas highway.
- The self-driving trucking technology startup secures CES 2021 Innovation Award.
- As autonomous vehicle technology continues to mature, the term driverless itself is attracting greater scrutiny.
Kodiak Robotics, one of a handful of startups aiming to automate commercial trucking, has successfully completed “disengage-free” deliveries on a 205-mile stretch of Texas highway.
Disengage-free means safety drivers did not have to take control of the truck’s autonomous vehicle system.
“What happened is our system has reached a level of maturity where a good percentage of the time it handles everything the highway throws at it,” Dan Goff, Kodiak’s Head of Policy, told FreightWaves.
Recapping news announced in a Kodiak blog post Monday, Goff said Kodiak’s achievement, occurred in December on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston.
“We even had a fully disengage-free day, completing two round-trips in a row — over 800 miles straight,” he said.
Separately, the self-driving technology startup announced it was selected as a CES 2021 Innovation Awards honoree, with the presentation to come during the first all-digital CES, which runs Monday through Thursday.
Navigating obstacles as they arise
Founded in 2018, Kodiak not only develops technology; it also operates as a carrier and is currently hauling commercial cargo for retailers in Texas. The company doesn’t build its own trucks but equips off-the-shelf models with its software and hardware.
One of the younger companies in the sector, Kodiak has taken a lower-key approach to marketing than some of its peers in the highly competitive autonomous trucking space, issuing press releases describing new developments with relative restraint.
But its latest milestone, documented in video footage, marks a “first for the industry,” Kodiak claims, noting in the blog post that its system can now negotiate everything from road and lane changes to “tough challenges like vehicles on the shoulder, merges and of course complicated construction zones.”
Most other self-driving programs, the blog post continues, are built around high-definition maps that depend on scripting a given stretch of road down to the last detail.
The problem with this approach is it “will never get you where you need to go no matter how much practice you get,” according to Kodiak. “There will always be another obstacle in the way.”
Kodiak’s autonomous driving system relies on low-definition maps along with sensors and software. The system can integrate new information — a construction zone, for example — into the maps that are delivered to other trucks via over-the-air updates, allowing for a real-time response to obstacles the vehicles encounter on the roadway.
“There are still unusual situations where a safety driver can and should take control,” Goff said. “But we’ve reached a point that is becoming less and less frequent.”
If a truck has no human driver, is it truly driverless?
Kodiak’s announcement comes as other autonomous car and truck technology companies announce their own safety-driver free milestones.
In October, Alphabet-backed Waymo announced plans to remove safety drivers from its robotaxi service in Phoenix.
In December, autonomous box truck startup Gatik announced it will initiate a fully driverless pilot in Arkansas, removing the safety driver from behind the wheel of trucks used to ferry products on a two-mile route from a Walmart (NYSE: WMT) warehouse to one of the retail outlets.
Ironically, as autonomous technology continues to mature, the term driverless itself is attracting greater scrutiny, with some companies dialing back on the human-free implications of the term as a way of emphasizing their commitment to safety.
Notably, Waymo announced last week that it will no longer use the term “self-driving” to describe its developing autonomous vehicle technology.
“Waymo’s vehicles don’t drive themselves,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Rather, Waymo is automating the task of driving and thus the term ‘autonomous driving’ is more accurate.”
Reconciling safety and full autonomy
Waymo’s post was widely viewed as a criticism of the “full self-driving” terminology that Tesla uses to describe its advanced driver assistance system, which has drawn scrutiny from safety regulators.
But a deeper dive into the operations of other companies reveals varied interpretations of the self-driving lexicon.
“Fully driverless means fully driverless,” Richard Steiner, policy director for Gatik, told FreightWaves in response to a question about what the term actually means.
That said, Gatik trucks “do have remote supervisors and can monitor and approve high-level decisions related to vehicles if needed,” Steiner clarified.
For its part, Kodiak will remove the safety driver “when it’s ready,” Goff said, adding that the company’s standard for doing just that is a system that is safer than the average human truck driver.
“We’re not going to say three months from now, and we’re not going to say it’s a decade in the future.”
Trucks take the lead
Goff said winning the CES innovation award is more than a recognition of Kodiak’s progress in a relatively short time period. It’s also a nod to the ascendancy of trucking in the self-driving industry.
“When I started with the company, trucking was not exactly the most exciting corner of this industry,” said Goff, a former managing director of Tusk Ventures, a Kodiak investor.
But over the past year, trucking has taken a lead role in the autonomous industry, with big players such as Aurora and Waymo pivoting from passenger to delivery and trucking transport.
“That is fantastic validation,” Goff said.