Kodiak Robotics is moving autonomous freight for Ceva Logistics

Autonomous trucking startup Kodiak Robotics has partnered with Ceva Logistics to deliver freight autonomously between Dallas-Forth Worth and Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, the company said on Wednesday, marking its first publicly announced customer.

This is not a pilot or an agreement to test Kodiak’s tech on the wide open road. Ceva is one of Kodiak’s paying customers, which gives Kodiak revenue to help it continue operations. The company just raised a $125 million Series B in November, but it’s still one of the smaller players in the game with significantly fewer funds than rivals like Waymo and Aurora.

Partnering with Ceva not only signals that Kodiak is further along on its path to commercialization, but it also gives the startup valuable insights into Ceva’s freight operations, Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch via email.

“This includes insights into how to most effectively integrate the Kodiak Driver into Ceva’s existing infrastructure,” said Burnette. “We believe running freight with partners is critical to helping us build a product that logistics customers actually want.”

The tech behind autonomous driving systems is ready or near-ready for public road deployment, and most industry experts believe freight will be autonomy’s first commercial application at scale. As a result, partnerships with logistics companies, shippers and carriers are becoming a land grab in the industry.

Waymo Via, the Alphabet-owned company’s autonomous driving unit, has recently announced that J.B. Hunt will be its first fully autonomous customer, and it will be launching a pilot with C.H. Robinson. Aurora has signed on FedEx to test its autonomous trucks, and the company is also hauling goods for Uber Freight customers.

“Working with customers ensures we have a deep understanding of the logistics business so we can operate seamlessly with them and others,” said Burnette. “Our customers have high demands. By hauling in real world scenarios, we can’t cherry pick the best times or best routes to operate on and our system is much stronger for it.”

Most of the country’s autonomous freight is being hauled in Texas, which makes Kodiak and Ceva something like pioneers in Oklahoma, where the state legislature just passed a bill allowing fully autonomous vehicles to operate without a human on public roads.

Kodiak’s trucks, like Waymo’s and Aurora’s, will still have a human safety operator in the driver’s seat to monitor operations at all times. The driver operates in autonomous mode on the highway portion of the route, and because the startup does not deploy any policy disengagements, the human will not be required to intervene and manually take over the truck, even in certain, defined situations.

“Our expectation is that the Kodiak Driver can handle the situations it will encounter while on the highway,” said Burnette. “The safety driver has the authority to disengage the system anytime they feel it is necessary.”

Since November 2021, Kodiak has been moving goods weekly for Ceva on the 200-mile freight lane between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. That partnership was extended last month to include the route to Oklahoma on Interstate 35, which runs between a Ceva facility in Dallas and the delivery point in Oklahoma City. On both routes, a Kodiak autonomous tractor, which is purpose-built for long-haul trucks, pulls a Ceva trailer filled with goods, according to Kodiak.

“At Ceva, we define innovation as the implementation of new ideas with business impact, and our partnership with Kodiak will deliver more business value to our customers, especially in light of the current supply chain crisis and the ongoing driver shortage,” said Shawn Stewart, president and managing director of Ceva’s North America operations, in a statement.

In addition to the two routes Kodiak is running for Ceva, the startup has been delivering freight daily between Dallas and Houston since 2019, and between Dallas and San Antonio since 2021. Kodiak also has strategic partnerships in place with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its technology in Asia and with Bridgestone, a minority investor, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.