The idea of doing anything in an autonomous truck other than looking out the windshield or at a computer screen covered with boxes representing surrounding traffic was pretty much out of the question until a recent demo ride in a high-autonomy Class 8 truck from Kodiak Robotics.
After a mostly uneventful trip from Mountain View to Palo Alto in Silicon Valley during California’s atmospheric rivers in January, Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette invited me to effectively break the truck.
Handing me a pair of large red shears engraved with the Kodiak logo, Burnette told me to cut a blue cable extending from the truck’s compute unit in the sleeper portion of the Peterbilt Model 579. Moving slowly forward in a parking lot behind headquarters, the third-generation Kodiak Drive system rocked to a stop as soon as the exposed cable was snipped.
The point, Burnette explained, was to show that a sensor failure — in this instance caused by severing the cable — would make the truck pull over. On the highway, the truck would resort to fallback mode and wait to be told what to do next.
“Over the next year, one of our core focuses is to eliminate issues with the system that would lead to a fallback situation or a pullover situation,” Burnette said.
And a daycab shall lead them
While some pundits opine that autonomous trucks are not ready for removing the driver, Kodiak is planning for just that in 2024. No longer does the startup place an engineer in the passenger seat on commercial runs. Substituting a daycab for a sleeper cab is in the works as large boxy compute systems that fuse camera and lidar perception systems shrink in size by a third.
Training the Kodiak Driver to do the safe thing while hauling a loaded 53-foot trailer is the bar for success.
“We try to do most of our driving with the trailer because if we don’t have a trailer people don’t consider it to be real, especially in the trucking industry,” Burnette said. “Give them a demo without a trailer and they’re like, ‘Well, that is useless.’”
Getting ready to go driverless also requires listening to safety driver input.
“At one point, we had trained the system to stick in the left lane here, because up ahead I believe we want to move back into the left lane,” Burnette said on our drive. “The feedback from the drivers was: ‘We’d feel more comfortable and it would be appropriate to be in the right lane.’ So we made some modifications to the system. You can’t learn that from simulation.”
Self-detected faults send Kodiak trucks to the side of the road
“Fallback. Manual. Manual,” a disembodied voice announced as the fourth-generation truck sensed a nonexistent object on the rain-slicked U.S. 101 heading north. The self-detected fault occurred within Kodiak’s software system that then runs calculations 10 times per second to determine the best way to get safely to the side of the road.
“Basically what it says is either a piece of data arrived late, there was a timing issue, a data integrity issue or something in the system,” Burnette said. “That basically said, ‘Nope, I’m no longer healthy and we need to pull over to the side of the road.’ So we go into fallback.”
On a commercial run, the truck would have pulled to the side of the road. On our practice run, we kept going.
Burnette seemed a bit surprised the truck decided to take itself out of the game.
“Fallbacks happen occasionally,” he said. “It’s not always about necessarily doing the right thing. It’s about doing the safe thing. And it’s safer for us to not just let those go by, even in demo situations.”
Disengagements — when the autonomous system shuts off or a safety driver decides to take over operation — are relatively rare. In January 2021, Kodiak conducted eight consecutive 205-mile runs without a single disengagement on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston.
“It’s not the bar that we actually focus on for launch, but I do think it’s an impressive metric,” Burnette said.
“The metrics for launching are to ensure that in all situations if there are disengagements, we simulate that the truck would’ve done the safe thing. That’s always the bar. Would it have avoided incidents? Would it have needed help? Those are the type of measures that we’re tracking.”
Waymo Via slowing but not halting progress
While Embark Trucks had to share the gory details of the failures that led to 70% of its workforce being laid off, Waymo Via — the autonomous freight-hailing arm of Alphabet Inc. — doesn’t have such a public obligation.
Waymo won’t say how many Via-dedicated employees are part of an overall 8% headcount reduction this year. Via shares technology with Waymo’s ride-hailing robotaxi unit. The company is pushing back autonomous deployment for freight by a few quarters. But customer pilots continue and new software releases are planned.
In the absence of Wamo-provided specifics, others are filling in the blanks based on the number of resumes received with Waymo as the most recent employer.
The New York Times reported this week that Waymo has only a skeleton crew of trucking employees left, after shedding 72 workers in January. Last week, Waymo culled another 137 roles, the Times said. That brought staff cuts to 8% this year.
Waymo is applying autonomous freeway capabilities to its ride-hailing service operating in Phoenix and San Francisco. Of course, freeways are where Waymo Via mostly operates. Commercial pilots with partners like J.B. Hunt Transport continue. A commitment remains to integrate Waymo software on a redundant chassis Daimler Truck North America is developing.
“We remain fully committed to bringing our freight trucking solution to scale over time and our dedication to this deployment of our transformative tech and service remains,” the company said. “We’ll continue to hire for key growth areas as we gear up for commercial success.”
Also in the news …
Workhorse Group unveils W-56 for 2nd half ’23 production
Workhorse Group showed its ground-up W-56 Class 5 step van at Work Truck Week in Indianapolis. The zero-tailpipe-emission delivery van has a payload capacity of up to approximately 10,000 pounds and a single-charge driving range of up to 150 miles. The company is getting by on upfitting vehicles from GreenPower Motor until its own new products are ready.
ONE adds Shyft as battery customer
Michigan-based startup Our Next Energy (ONE) will supply batteries to Shyft Group for its Blue Arc electric commercial vehicles.
ONE is slated to provide more than 15,000 Aries lithium iron phosphate battery packs over the next five years for Shyft’s Class 3-5 commercial trucks.
Blue Arc electric trucks using Aries batteries will go through development, testing and validation this year using 79 kilowatt-hour and 62 kWh variants.
ONE announced in February it had closed a $300 million Series B capital raise at a valuation of $1.2 billion.
REE signs first dealers
REE Automotive, a developer of electric and autonomous vehicle platforms for OEMs and fleets, named its first four U.S. customers/dealers. They are Pritchard EV, a nationwide distributor and subsidiary of Pritchard Companies; Tom’s Truck Center; Industrial Power & Truck Equipment (IPT); and New England Truck Solutions (NETS).
Purolator to spend $1B on electric vehicles in Canada
Purolator expects to invest approximately $1 billion to electrify its Canadian network over the next seven years by purchasing more than 3,500 fully electric last-mile delivery vehicles and electrifying more than 60 terminals across Canada. Ford Motor Co., General Motors’ BrightDrop subsidiary and Motiv Power Systems will supply more than 100 EVs to Purolator this year.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays. And watch Truck Tech on FreightWaves TV on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. ET. Next week’s guest will be Gatik co-founder and CEO Gautam Narang.