Kodiak Robotics plots own route for self-driving trucks
There’s one question that permeates almost every discussion surrounding self-driving vehicles: When are they coming? For self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics, there’s a more relevant question: Where are they coming? In the company’s two-year existence, Kodiak engineers have concentrated on geography instead of timelines.
Kodiak’s autonomous technology is purpose-built to handle driving on what the company describes as a narrow operational domain. The company envisions trucks driving themselves on highways between “truckports” located alongside interstates or nearby frontage roads.
Once trucks reach those destinations, cargo can be switched to a human-driven truck or a driver can hop in one of Kodiak’s Kenworth T680s cabs. “It happens that the technology fits better for trucks,” Daniel Goff, Kodiak’s head of policy, told Automotive News. “Think of how hard city driving is.
If you see a pedestrian 100 feet ahead, you might assume they’re crossing the street. Most of the time that’s right, but you don’t really know. On highways, it’s simple.
If you see a pedestrian ahead, you stop.” Kodiak Robotics filed a voluntary safety self-assessment with federal regulators this month in which the company says the comparative simplicity of highway operations will allow it to deploy its self-driving system “in the relative near term.” The document sheds further light on the Mountain View, Calif., company’s technology, safety practices and testing protocols.
It’s the fourth company focused on autonomous trucking to send a self-assessment to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Kodiak joins TuSimple, Ike Robotics and the now-closed Starsky Robotics.
Two others, Waymo and Aurora, are building virtual drivers they intend to deploy across a variety of platforms, including trucks. In some ways, Kodiak is most like Ike. Both Bay Area startups were founded by alums of Uber’s self-driving truck team, and both have similar early-stage funding, with Ike raising £52 million to date while Kodiak has received £40 million from investors, per Crunchbase records.
Both take a dim view of racking up test miles on public roads. In its assessment, filed in October 2019, Ike said it had not tested a vehicle under computer control on public roads, partially because such testing comes with “non-zero risk.” Kodiak doesn’t eliminate on-road testing, but it seeks to minimize the number of miles it logs with its fleet of 10 trucks. “We will probably never log as many test miles as some of our competitors,” the company wrote in its self-assessment. “We see our lower mileage count not as a risk, but as a sign of our commitment to safety.”
Kodiak also seeks to reduce emphasis on tracking the number of miles between times when human safety drivers must intervene, another metric other self-driving tech companies sometimes use to gauge progress. Others, including Kodiak, see it as a superficial benchmark. “When there’s pressure on organizations to improve their MPI (miles per intervention), that means there’s pressure on safety drivers to not touch the steering wheel,” Goff said. “We want our drivers touching the steering wheel.
How is a system to learn if the safety driver doesn’t say, ‘I’m not 100 percent confident with what the system is doing?’ ” In another step contrary to much industry thinking, Kodiak diminished the role maps play in its self-driving planning. Andreas Wendel, vice president of engineering, favors lane markings and other sensor-based perceptions for localizing a truck instead of a map baked into its brain.
“We call this approach ‘perception over priors,’ ” Wendel wrote in a post about the company’s self-assessment. “The Kodiak Driver trusts its eyes, not its memory, and we believe it represents a significant step forward for the AV industry.” Kodiak has an operational hub in Dallas, from which it travels Interstate 45 to Houston and back each day. The company has hauled goods during testing.
Texas has become a popular location for self-driving truck tests. Waymo and TuSimple run routes in the state, and Starsky had a Dallas-area hub. Industry-friendly regulations, warm weather and Interstate 10’s status as a key national freight corridor make Texas an AV hotbed.
Kodiak expects to add more routes in Texas from the Dallas hub, Goff said.
But for now, the company wants to establish a safety foothold as much as a physical footprint.
“For the past two years, we’ve been pretty heads down and focused on building our technology,” he said. “Now it’s time for us to communicate what we’re doing and why.”