In Don Burnette and Paz Eshel’s view, trucking is the killer app for self-driving technology.
It’s what led Burnette to leave the Google self-driving project and co-found Otto in early 2016, along with Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron and Claire Delaunay.
And it’s what would eventually prompt Burnette to leave Uber — the company that acquired Otto — and co-found with former venture capitalist Eshel a new driverless-trucks startup called Kodiak Robotics.
“It was no secret that Uber was primarily focused on the car project and 80 to 90 percent of my time was focused on the car project,” Burnette told TechCrunch. “But I still felt that trucking was the killer app for self-driving. I still believe that. I wanted to focus 100 percent of my time on trucking.”
Now he and Eshel can. Kodiak Robotics, which was founded in April, is coming out of stealth loaded up with venture capital.
Kodiak Robotics announced Tuesday it has raised $40 million in Series A financing led by Battery Ventures. CRV, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Tusk Ventures also participated in the round. Itzik Parnafes, a general partner at Battery Ventures, will join Kodiak’s board.
Kodiak Robotics will use the funds to expand its team and for product development. The company has about 10 employees, according to Eshel, who was a vice president at Battery Ventures, where he led the firm’s autonomous-vehicle investment project.
Burnette noted the core engineering team — many of whom have experience in shipping self-driving vehicles on public roads — has been assembled.
The pair weren’t ready to discuss the company’s go-to-market strategy. They did share the basic vision though: use self-driving technology to ease the current strain on the freight market.
The trucking industry is a primary driver of the U.S. economy. Trucks moved more than 70 percent of all U.S. freight and generated $719 billion in revenue in 2017, according to the American Trucking Association. Meanwhile, “full-truckload, over-the-road nonlocal drivers,” a term used to describe drivers who haul goods over long distances, are in short supply. This long-haul sector, which employs about 500,000, was short 51,000 truck drivers last year — up from a shortage of 36,000 in 2016.
Burnette and Eshel see an opportunity for driverless trucks to help close that gap.
“We believe self-driving trucks will likely be the first autonomous vehicles to support a viable business model, and we are proud to have the support of such high-profile investors to help us execute on our plan,” Burnette said.
They also revealed the company’s technical approach.
Kodiak Robotics plans to use light detection and ranging radar known as LiDAR as well as camera, radar and sonar technologies. “Pretty much everything you can imagine self-driving cars using in a comprehensive sensor fusion type system,” Burnette said.
Engineers will focus on developing the full self-driving system stack from the company’s own hardware and software architectures. However, Kodiak Robotics is not going to build any sensors. Instead it will use sensors from third-party suppliers.