It’s hard to deny the soft economic conditions over the last year have created headwinds in transportation, and cutting-edge industries like autonomous trucking have not been spared.
Despite these economic obstacles, individual autonomous vehicle (AV) companies are proving they are well-equipped to navigate this challenging market, and are making continuous progress on the path toward commercialization.
Kodiak Robotics is a prime example. Kodiak, which just marked its fifth anniversary, has taken big steps along its own journey with the announcement of additional carrier partnerships and the unveiling of its next generation truck technology. These achievements are laying the foundation for continued expansion in the years to come.
While the Kodiak Driver, the company’s self-driving system, has been making deliveries with a human safety driver for years, a scaled, driverless version of that technology will provide its customers solutions for some of trucking’s long-held challenges.
Imagine reducing human error and improving safety on the roads, drastically growing individual truck utilization, shortening shipping times, and even reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions. These are some of the benefits its autonomous trucks will bring, described by Kodiak’s Michael Wiesinger, vice president of commercialization.
“Autonomous trucks will be on the roads sooner than some may expect, and Kodiak is one of the companies that is making it happen,” Wiesinger said.
3-way partnership and new lane offer promising perspectives
Commercialization momentum at Kodiak started picking up speed about 18 months ago. Since then, the company has established partnerships with some of the largest shippers and carriers in the industry, including CEVA Logistics, U.S. Xpress, Werner Enterprises, 10 Roads Express and Forward Air, among others. Additionally, the company’s Partner Deployment Program, which brings teams from both companies together to roadmap how Kodiak’s autonomous technology will integrate into the fleet of the shipper or carrier, will add more industry players this year.
Through this program, Kodiak hauls freight for a carrier on a designated lane, helping the AV developer improve its system by gaining insight into everything needed to get to completely driverless operations.
Kodiak has partnered with a diverse set of carriers to get a complete picture of how the Kodiak Driver will work with different use cases and verticals. Kodiak has collaborated with truckload carriers, a dedicated carrier, and expedited carriers, said James Reed, COO of Kodiak, during April 21’s WHAT THE TRUCK?!? episode.
“We have moved away from doing just pilots,” Wiesinger added. “We focus on long-term agreements and really working closely with partners to determine how to integrate autonomous trucks into their fleets and freight networks.”
One of those long-term agreements is a new three-way partnership with C.R. England, a Utah-based carrier that specializes in temperature-controlled freight, and Tyson, one of the world’s largest processors of chicken, beef and pork. Partnering with both a carrier and a shipper is a new approach for Kodiak.
“We are working with these companies to demonstrate what autonomous trucks can do for C.R. England as the carrier and Tyson as the shipper,” Wiesinger said. “We’re looking at autonomous trucking as a holistic solution for the industry.”
Another significant partnership Kodiak announced in March is with Forward Air Corp., a ground transportation company serving the North American airfreight and expedited LTL market. Since August last year, a Kodiak Driver-powered truck has made continuous runs from Dallas to Atlanta for Forward Air, 24/6.
Reed described the partnership as a “manifestation of the capability of the technology.”
Since Kodiak and Forward Air kicked off their partnership last year, the Kodiak Driver has completed three round trips each week, totaling six loads between Dallas and Atlanta every six days. The lane is 800 miles one way. Though Kodiak doesn’t publish how long the truck is in autonomy along this route, Reed gave a hint that it starts with a nine.
Speaking on the takeaways from this collaboration, Wiesinger said: “Our partnership with Forward gives us a lot of real-world learnings about what it really means to keep a truck running 24 hours, six days a week, and what we need to consider from a maintenance perspective in the future. Moving away from pilots in controlled environments really helps shape our solution and make our system more robust. It has also given Forward insight into how autonomous trucks can actually provide the business with what it needs. So far, it’s been really, really successful.”
Introducing Gen 5
In March, Kodiak announced its fifth-generation truck, bringing with it a refined design and upgraded system that Kodiak says is smarter, more modular, safer, and more efficient than its previous generation.
“It’s not just newer technology,” Wiesinger said. “We have listened to our customers and it’s what they care about, what’s important in trucking, and we put all of that into Gen 5, which really serves all of their use case variables.”
The new design includes 28% more sensors and simplifies maintenance by moving all remaining sensors that were previously above the windshield into Sensor Pods, which are replacements for rearview mirrors.
While Kodiak refers to this change as “shaving the unibrow” off the top of the truck, it doesn’t just improve the truck’s look, it also makes maintenance easier. An untrained technician can replace the Pods faster than changing a tire.
“Inherently it’s more serviceable, more scalable … and perhaps most importantly, it gets us closer to our design intent of what we intend to go to market with,” Reed said.
Another notable safety feature includes new long-range lidars, which will allow the Kodiak Driver increased redundancy.
Kodiak’s modularity will be key moving forward as the transportation industry continues to push for more sustainable fuel sources to reduce its carbon footprint.
“In the future, mixed fleets will also mean mixed powertrains. … We have built our system in a way that it does not matter if it’s a battery electric vehicle, a hydrogen electric vehicle or an internal combustion engine like we have today. We are absolutely prepared to go on to a zero-emission platform, and we are very excited to do that very soon,” Wiesinger said.
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