Autonomous trucking is arriving ahead of schedule and not a moment too soon.
It’s happening, along desolate highway stretches, largely in the southwest – heavy-duty 18-wheelers are test-piloting themselves.
Excitement – and controversy – within the Automated Vehicle (AV) sector has centered of late on Tesla’s
But the self-driving trucking industry is barreling full speed ahead, crucially, considering an ever-shifting series of supply chain hurdles, including the prolonged driver shortage during the height of the pandemic and a future outlook for driver shortages with fewer young people entering the field.
“The pace and success of the tests that are happening around the country would seem to suggest it’s only a matter of time before self-driving trucks are on the road in every state,” said Ronald Leibman, head of the Transportation, Logistics and Supply Chain Management Group at McCarter & English. “I’d say we are probably two or three years off from that being the case for over-the-road shipments, particularly across the southern U.S.”
Which automated trucking company is poised to speed ahead in terms of innovation and market share? That still remains to be seen; but dozens of viable contenders, publicly traded and privately held, have joined the convoy.
For inspection, some milestones recently reached, or quickly coming into view:
- In late December 2021, in Arizona, on an 80-mile route (mostly one highway but some tributary streets as well) connecting a rail yard in Tucson and a distribution center outside Phoenix, TuSimple rolled out a driverless big rig that made the run without any type of human intervention, becoming the first trucking company to pull this off, Transport Drive said. So-called “driver out” runs only happen on pre-defined routes that TuSimple’s automated trucks know like the back of their software stack.
- Kodiak Robotics’ fleet of 24 trucks has logged thousands of hours of automated driving. Since December 2020, Kodiak long-haulers have delivered on behalf of their partners/clients some 1,500 payloads, traveling between Dallas and the following cities: Atlanta; Houston; Oklahoma City and San Antonio. With respect to these trips, safety drivers (humans) were sitting behind the wheel but never disengaged the self-driving system. Within the next few years, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company intends to have these self-driving long-haul trucks travel on some specific stretches, sans safety drivers.
- Autonomous trucking startup Gatik, which already operates short-haul delivery trucks for Walmart
in Arkansas and Louisiana, has now started operations in Kansas after getting a green light from the state.
trucks, equipped with the Aurora Innovation autonomous driver system, have begun hauling FedEx
loads between Dallas and Houston.
As it turns out, that specific stretch of Interstate 45 has become a primary test track for driverless big rigs, said Levin D’Souza, senior manager, business research, at Aranca, a global consulting firm.
“Many projects are still at pilot stages, with software developers, truck manufacturers and service providers coming together,” D’Souza said. “Texas even passed a law allowing operations of driverless vehicles.”
Indeed, I-45 has become a battleground for autonomous freight companies looking to commercialize, TechCrunch says, noting how competitors Kodiak, TuSimple and others are test running on the same road.
Pittsburgh-based Aurora Innovation is one of the most established AV technology companies, known for developing the Aurora Driver. It’s a computer system that can be integrated into cars for autonomous driving.
Aurora went public via a SPAC deal in November 2021. It recently expanded its self-driving freight pilot with FedEx to include weekly 600-mile trips between Dallas-Fort Worth and El Paso.
Another key milestone: Just this week, on June 15, for the first time ever, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data on crashes involving autonomous vehicles, or those equipped with what it calls automated driving system (ADS) technology. The report revealed 130 such crashes reported by manufacturers and operators between the end of June 2021, when the federal agency issued an order requesting such data, and the middle of May 2022. Waymo Via reported 62 of those crashes, two involving its class 8 heavy-duty trucks, reports FreightWaves, citing a Waymo spokesman and underscoring, as the NHTSA has, that the report shouldn’t be used to compare the safety of different companies because it doesn’t account for the number of vehicles each company has deployed, as well as other key factors.
Waymo is viewed as a front-runner to surge ahead in autonomous trucking. It’s the delivery division of the self-driving unit of Alphabet, parent of Google
Meanwhile, DHL, part of TuSimple’s Autonomous Freight Network (AFN), has partnered with the self-driving truck company for runs (with a safety driver on board) between San Antonio and Dallas.
Not only are highways filling up with self-driving trucks but there are more than a few different ways to log these pivotal proof-of-viability miles.
Emark Trucks has a model in which a driver operates the truck within city limits and then the truck does inter-city runs autonomously, which increases vehicle utilization. (These autonomous runs involve a safety driver; meaning, and to reiterate, a human being is at the wheel, ready to turn off the autopilot and manually drive).
Pittsburgh-based Locomation has introduced an autonomous trucking model that sticks out as novel in that it involves a relay system – the lead truck has a driver while a non-lead truck would be driverless (or containing a driver who rests). This lead truck essentially guides the non-lead truck, increasing the total time the trucks remain in use. This model is currently being tested on Pennsylvania’s I-576.
Smaller, niche players, steeped in autonomous trucking technology pedigree and backed by private equity, are moving quickly but, they insist, still very cautiously, recognizing the reputational damage on the line with each automated trip.
Launched in 2018 by a well-rounded team connected with Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center, Locomation has been expanding its workforce after being infused with $57 million worth of private funding over the past year.
Kodiak Robotics closed a $125 million Series B funding round in 2021.
Kodiak was founded in 2018 on a similar bet as made by the backers of Locomation, that is, the burgeoning self-driving trucking industry had a wide-open lane for the right collection of best-in-field experts narrowly focused on long-haul trucking and putting safety at the forefront.
What began a few years back with one autonomous loop around the Kodiak parking lot would evolve slowly and incrementally, leading to the day, in December of 2020, that the Kodiak Driver system self-navigated 205 miles of Texas highway.
With all the technology pieces in place – Luminar’s Iris LiDAR, ZF Full Range Radar, Hesai 360-degree scanning LiDARs for side- and rear-view detection, Cummins X15TM Series engines, Bridgestone Americas smart-sensing tire technology, and the NVIDIA DRIVE platform – the Kodiak Driver next completed eight more “disengage-free” runs only one week after that first disengage-free delivery. That spree was in January 2021.
This past March, Kodiak teamed up with CEVA Logistics, becoming the first companies to deliver freight autonomously in the state of Oklahoma. Freight-rich I-35, between Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, spans 200 miles. It connects a CEVA facility and a key delivery hub. Kodiak autonomous tractors pull a CEVA trailer filled with consumer goods.
The Kodiak Driver system was custom-built for long-haul trucks. At the core is an integrated stack of software, sensors and cameras capturing/processing hundreds of megabytes of perception data per second, allowing the truck to “see” at a long range. The system has been tested in a variety of conditions.
Whether “safety first and at all costs” is merely a company line that needs constant towing or just a cultural touchstone that, for the right reasons, keeps coming up, Kodiak staffers interviewed for this article hammered the creed home, emphasizing the kinds of incremental milestones, tests, simulations, drawing board trips, double-checks and triple-checks, and overall unsung toil that does not make headlines.
“Safety is ingrained in our culture and at the center of everything we do at Kodiak,” said Don Burnette, Founder & CEO, Kodiak Robotics, in an emailed statement.
“From our technology design, to our testing procedures, to operations, safety guides every decision we make.”
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