Kodiak Robotics pilots autonomous trucking between California, Texas and Florida

Autonomous trucking startup Kodiak Robotics recently completed a coast-to-coast commercial run between Texas, California and Florida for 10 Roads Express, a USPS mail carrier, according to Kodiak. The pilot marks the first time Kodiak has run an autonomous freight service to Florida.

The freight run included four commercial deliveries on a 5,600-mile round trip that started in San Antonio and went to San Francisco and then Jacksonville before going back to San Antonio. In total, the trip took 114 hours.

While it's illegal to test or deploy heavy-duty autonomous commercial trucks in California, Dan Goff, Kodiak's head of external affairs, says Kodiak operates at a Level 2 system, or an advanced driver assistance system, when it's in California.

The California DMV, which issues permits for testing and deployment of autonomous light-duty vehicles, could not be reached in time for comment.

The partnership with 10 Roads shows the feasibility of Kodiak's proprietary lightweight mapping system that doesn't rely on HD maps, which Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says go stale quickly. To bring this route online, Kodiak sent one of its trucks out on a single manual run to collect data on the new territory, data that was then used to automatically create a map. Kodiak didn't do any autonomy testing on the new lanes before its commercial engagement, which, Burnette says, proves Kodiak can move quickly into new lanes.

"This is really a demonstration of our ability to stand up lanes very quickly and showcase our technology on a broad scale in a commercial setting," Burnette told TechCrunch. "We want to continue to demonstrate the capabilities of our system in places where we didn't train it. Everybody likes to claim that their autonomy system generalizes, but it's different to actually show that it works, and we were able to run our autonomy system throughout this entire loop."

During the pilot, Kodiak's autonomous system was engaged over 90% of the time, said Burnette, who noted that disengagements were caused by things like tricky construction zones, general driver discomfort and, once, a hardware malfunction.

This was run was a single event, and Kodiak doesn't yet have the capacity to run a route of the same scale on a daily basis. However, as part of an ongoing commercial partnership, the two companies will continue to work together to evaluate the potential of integrating Kodiak's tech into 10 Roads' fleet in the coming years, said Burnette.

"This partnership is an opportunity to stay abreast of this technology’s progress and evaluate its benefits," said Wayne Hoovestol, CEO of 10 Roads. "By partnering with Kodiak now, 10 Roads can build the operational expertise we need to efficiently integrate autonomous trucks into our fleet in the coming years.”

Earlier this year, Kodiak also partnered with global supply chain and logistics provider Ceva Logistics to deliver freight autonomously between Dallas, Austin and Oklahoma City. The next month, Kodiak completed a pilot with US Xpress, an American truckload carrier, to test an autonomous freight service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta.

Unlike other AV companies that are pushing to reach the milestone of removing the driver from operations, one highway at a time, Kodiak is more concerned with testing its autonomous system on new roads.

"By stress testing our system broadly, we're not only developing the partnerships that are going to be important for the expansion of this technology and bringing them along to understand why and how this technology will benefit them, but we're also pushing the technology to ensure that we're not getting stuck in a local minimum or a valley of technology ability," said Burnette.

("Local minimum" is a math term that basically means it contains the lowest value.)

"That's a very common problem with AI and machine learning in general. It gets stuck in local minima and valleys and it can't pop out," Burnette continued.

Kodiak believes the best, fastest and safest way to deploy driverless technology is to use a broad strategy and drive as much of the geography as possible, said the executive. For Kodiak right now, that means driving the I-20 and I-10 along the southern half of the United States.

Kodiak has only tested its AV without a human safety operator on closed courses, and won't deploy it on public roads for another couple of years, said Burnette.