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Kodiak Robotics, a California-based startup founded in 2018 developing autonomous trucking technology, recently reached an important milestone. The company managed to drive 800-plus miles on I-45 between Dallas and Houston without its system requiring a single intervention from a human safety driver.
Kodiak built its first autonomous truck in December 2018, and these real-world, disengagement-free runs came almost exactly two years later. Daniel Goff, head of policy at Kodiak Robotics, told The Robot Report the company’s self-driving system is now “consistently navigating the middle-mile portion of its routes without a backup driver taking control.”
There are other autonomous trucking companies that have touted disengagement-free runs over longer distances in the past. But Kodiak’s excitement isn’t just about the miles without disengagement, which Goff and many others in the industry have admitted is a flawed statistic. These are revenue-generating trips for commercial customers.
“We’re working on customer timelines,” Goff said. “We can’t say our system works best at 3 AM in the morning when nobody else is on the road. And I-45 between Dallas and Houston is never the same from day to day. The toughest thing for an autonomous vehicle tends to be construction. You have a map of the world, but if a construction zone gets thrown up in the middle of the night, that map no longer reflects reality.”
Kodiak’s autonomous trucks just handle the on-highway driving, while a human driver handles getting on and off the highway and driving to the final destination. You can watch all 800+ miles, including a disengagement-free day with back-to-back roundtrips, in the video below.
Goff said Kodiak’s approach revolves around a lightweight mapping system. This is the opposite of most other autonomous vehicle companies, which develop 3D maps of the vehicle’s environment. According to a Kodiak blog, it doesn’t use RTK positioning, but instead uses low-definition map designed for over-the-air updates in case of lane closures or construction.
“We trust perception over priors,” Goff said. “If the sensors say something doesn’t look right comparative to the map, the system is robust enough to trust the sensors in cases.”
Goff said Kodiak has made 600-plus runs for customers to date. Most of the trips have required human intervention, until now.
“We built our system from the beginning to have a broad set of capabilities that is designed to be a product,” Goff said. “It’s becoming mature enough that, not every time, but a good chunk of the time it can make deliveries disengagement free. It’s amazing to see.”
Goff was a guest on a recent episode of The Robot Report Podcast. He discussed the state of the autonomous trucking industry, why robo-trucks are the new robo-taxis, the role of simulation, and Kodiak’s approach to middle-mile autonomous trucking. You can listen to the podcast below.
Middle-mile logistics is a burgeoning space for autonomous vehicles. RBR50 company Gatik recently raised $25 million in Series A funding to scale its Level 4 autonomous vehicles that are designed for B2B short-haul, middle-mile logistics. Since it was founded in 2017, Gatik has completed more than 30,000 revenue-generating autonomous orders for multiple Fortune 500 customers, including Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.
Gatik also announced a multi-year deal with Loblaw, the largest supermarket chain in Canada with 2,400-plus locations. Starting in January 2021, five of Gatik’s Level 4 Ford Transit 350 autonomous box trucks will transport goods from an automated picking facility to retail locations across the Greater Toronto Area.
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