Kodiak Robotics reveals its best shot at making self-driving trucks a business

Autonomous trucking startup Kodiak Robotics revealed Tuesday at CES 2024 a semi-truck that founder Don Burnette says is the linchpin in its plans to launch commercial driverless operations this year.

This isn’t just any big rig. Packed inside this sixth-generation semi truck are two — and sometimes three — of every mechanical component that is critical for safe operations, including braking, steering, sensors and computers. Those redundant systems are there as a backup in case anything were to fail while its self-driving truck barrels down a highway without a driver behind the wheel.

“From a safety perspective, we do not believe that is responsible to put a driverless truck on the road that doesn’t have proper redundancy across the platform, meaning the actual chassis of the vehicle, like the actual truck itself,” Burnette told TechCrunch.

The stakes are high for Kodiak, a VC-backed startup that has managed to survive a tumultuous period of consolidation in the autonomous vehicle industry. The process of designing, developing and testing autonomous vehicle technology is costly and has led to the failure of dozens of startups. And that’s just the start. Even those AV startups that manage to stay alive long enough to launch commercially can abruptly disappear — or see operations essentially cease, like Cruise — from one crash or incident that deems the self-driving car or truck unsafe.

The semi-truck’s redundant features, which were developed and designed by Kodiak and built by a contract manufacturer, including three brake actuators on its system steering and two steering systems as well as a backup power system for all of the computers, sensors, actuators and other electrical systems on the truck. Kodiak also designed its own compute system and added two of them. Redundant LTE communications links were added as well to ensure Kodiak employees at the company’s command centers in Lancaster, Texas and Mountain View, California can always be in contact with the truck. 

Put together, Burnette says the semi-truck has all the proper redundancies in place to safely be used on highways.

Other improvements have been made on the truck, including the hardware that houses the sensors, upgrades to the sensors themselves and microphones to detect emergency vehicles or other sounds that could be a hazard. In total, the Kodiak driverless-ready truck features 12 cameras, four lidar sensors and six radar sensors.

On the compute side, the semi-truck now has twice the GPU processor cores, 1.6x greater processing speed, three times more memory and 2.75 times greater bandwidth to run software processes compared to Kodiak’s first-generation truck, according to the company. Kodiak added extra-bright hazard lights designed to comply with the autonomous trucking industry’s application for an exemption to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations, which requires traditional truck drivers to place warning devices on a roadway after a breakdown. These lights will be used to alert other drivers to the presence of a truck on the side of the road, pending Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration approval.

The result, which was born from Kodiak’s five years of testing that included carrying 5,000 loads over more than 2.5 million miles, is a truck designed to be produced in the thousands, according to Burnette.

“Success for a company like Kodiak doesn’t depend on the 10- to 20-year outlook of dominating the transportation market,” Burnette explained. “If we could put 1,000 self-driving driverless trucks in full commercial operation on the road, Kodiak would be wildly successful already. And that’s not to say we would stop there.”

And Kodiak doesn’t plan to. But for now, Burnette’s aim is to use this new truck for Kodiak’s driverless operations, which it plans to initiate between Dallas and Houston in 2024.

Kodiak has taken a different road to commercial self-driving truck operations than its peers, companies like Aurora and Torc. The system — that includes all of the redundant hardware and software system — is not tied to one manufacturer. It’s “truck manufacturer agnostic,” which Burnette says, “allows the startup to move fast while keeping safety at the forefront.”

Aurora, for instance, is working with automotive supplier Continental to mass produce autonomous vehicle hardware for commercial self-driving trucks. Aurora and Continental recently passed their own milestone and finalized the design of its hardware kit. Continental can now get to work on developing prototypes ahead of its plan to begin production in 2027. The software and hardware kits will then be integrated onto a fleet of trucks for testing. Aurora is also partnered with truck makers Paccar and Volvo Group.

Burnette said it took this truck-agnostic approach to hasten the launch of commercial operations.

“While I totally agree that in the long run, these vehicles are going to come from the OEMs, the OEMs are not ready today,” he said. “I doubt we’re going to see OEM production vehicles in 2025. The question is when are they going to come? Nobody really knows for sure. What I can tell you is we can build these trucks which are driverless-ready in 2024. So that is a huge advantage.”

Kodiak will now begin the process of integrating the software into the new trucks, testing and validating them for public roads. The company plans to drive its first driverless miles in 2024 and be ready for commercial deployment in 2025.

“And then we’ll drive our first driverless mile — one mile, 10 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 1,000 miles etc.,” Burnette said. “And it will continue to grow like it has for Cruise and Waymo and others. They all started with their very first drive around the block, and then they deployed a fleet and it grew from there. Ours is going to grow as well. And our goal is to have these trucks commercially ready to hand to our partner carriers in 2025.”

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