The company wants to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks." PRNewsfoto/Kodiak Robotics

The Interstate 45 freight corridor between Houston and Dallas now serves as a testing ground for self-driving cargo trucks.

Silicon Valley startup Kodiak Robotics Inc. recently began sending its autonomous 18-wheel trucks on trips between Texas' two largest metro areas, co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says. The trucks are carrying paid cargo, but Kodiak won't identify the customer or customers. The company also won't say how many trips the trucks are making each day.

The Texas initiative represents Kodiak's first foray into commercial deliveries. Wired.com notes that pretty much every player in the autonomous truck sector has conducted tests in Texas or is carrying commercial loads in the Lone Star State, which boasts more than 2,300 miles of interstate highways.

For its part, Kodiak aims to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks."

According to a 2016 report from the Texas Department of Transportation, nearly half of all truck freight in Texas goes through the I-45 corridor's 11 counties. In some spots, trucks make up more than one-fourth of the traffic in the corridor, which runs 276 miles from Galveston to where I-45 intersects with Interstate 20 in Dallas County, the TxDOT report says.

"The importance of the I‐45 freight corridor to the movement of goods extends beyond Texas because much of the freight originating or passing through the corridor is destined to other domestic and international markets," the report says.

For now, Burnette says, two people are aboard each Kodiak truck traveling between Houston and Dallas — a safety driver and a safety engineer.

"Dallas will be our home base for testing and operations for the foreseeable future," Burnette says. "Kodiak plans to continue refining and testing its trucks until the last truck-involved accident happens on public roads."

Kodiak's Dallas office, which opened in March, employs eight people. The company plans to relocate soon to new office space in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, Burnette says.

At this time, Kodiak doesn't plan to hire any workers in Houston, he says.

From its base in the Dallas area, Kodiak envisions expanding its service to routes throughout Texas, but it's focusing solely on the Houston-to-Dallas route for the time being, Burnette says.

Kodiak picked Texas for its truck tests, in part, because of the "warm welcome" extended by Gov. Greg Abbott, TxDOT, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and other segments of the public sector, he says.

In addition, Burnette says, Kodiak chose Texas "because of its great people, freight-rich economy, reasonable regulatory structure, and robust infrastructure."

In 2017, Texas enacted laws enabling driverless vehicles, including long-haul trucks, to operate on the state's roads.

"Texas is a leader in the testing and implementation of connected and automated vehicles, and Kodiak's willingness to partner with academia and public agencies to ensure safe deployment of new technology will add significant value to our transportation system," Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says in a release.

Burnette, co-founder of Otto Trucking LLC, a self-driving truck startup purchased in 2016 by Uber Technologies Inc., and fellow entrepreneur Paz Eshel established Kodiak in 2018 to "redefine" long-haul trucking through self-driving technology.

Kodiak says its autonomous technology is designed to ease pressures facing the trucking industry, including a shortage of drivers and high turnover among drivers, while improving highway safety, fostering business efficiency, reducing traffic congestion, and cutting down on harmful emissions.

"Long-haul trucking is primed for autonomous technology," Kodiak says in a post on Medium. "Highway driving is more structured and predictable than urban driving. This means there are fewer decisions for drivers to make and [it's] a better fit for autonomous vehicles."

"As hard as it is to navigate city streets, autonomous vehicles are much closer to being able to drive on more structured interstate highways, which have no jaywalking pedestrians, no aggressive cyclists, and no runaway pets," Kodiak adds. "That's why we've focused on building technology specifically for long-haul trucks driving on highway routes, often referred to as the 'middle mile.'"

If you have an opinion about trains, here's your chance. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

TxDOT asks Houstonians for input on rail projects

All aboard

The Texas Department of Transportation is updating a document called the Texas Rail Plan and is seeking input from the public.

The update is designed to reflect the latest rail project priorities and fulfill eligibility requirements for federal funding. Federal requirements say that states' rail plans must be updated every four years to establish policy, priorities, and implementation strategies for freight and passenger rail in the state.

The Texas Rail Plan includes a list of current and future rail projects, which are also depicted on a map. The plan keeps inventory of all rail lines; analyzes rail service goals and contributions to the economy; catalogs and assesses potential infrastructure projects; and examines finance strategies.

The update project began in summer 2018. Meetings of stakeholders were held, and now there's an opportunity for public input. (Stakeholders include citizens, neighboring states, public agencies, and the private rail industry.)

There'll be another round of meetings in the spring, and then the updated plan will be released in summer 2019.

TxDOT hosted a public meeting on December 11, when it presented the update and asked for public questions and input. After that meeting, they extended their deadline for comments to March 1, 2019.

As for now, the public can review and provide input on the plan via this website which explains the history of the Rail Plan and some of the reasons why an update is being done.

There's a survey and online form to submit public comments until January 8, 2019.

If you feel equipped to answer 10 questions such as, "What could be done in Texas to improve freight rail access, promote economic development, and enhance the state's competitiveness in national markets and the global marketplace?" — then this survey should be right up your alley. (Although it should be noted that the hardest questions are first and they get easier as you go along. Also, it's multiple choice.)

These options provide an opportunity for the public to comment on all rail-related issues in Texas, both freight and passenger, as well as existing and future projects and programs.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Expert: Building Hispanic wealth means investing in Houston

Guest column

Every year at this time ― Hispanic Heritage Month ― we collectively celebrate the economic, cultural, and social contributions of the Hispanic-Latino community to our nation. We honor the work of past generations which have allowed children and future generations to benefit from more opportunities.

As diverse a community as is the world, we strive to build a future where there are no barriers for success, and at Bank of America, we do our part to make an impact by helping build Hispanic-Latino wealth in Houston.

The numbers are clear: The 2020 Census revealed that the Hispanic-Latino population in the United States rose to 62.1 million, making up 18.7 percent of the total U.S. population and accounting for slightly more than half (51.1 percent) of the population growth between 2010 and 2020. Hispanic-Latinos now open more small businesses than any other group in the country and are also the fastest-growing demographic of small business owners across the nation. It is not surprising that Hispanic-Latino economic power continues to rise year after year. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the number of Houston Hispanic businesses have increased 85 percent since 2013.

Investing in business

Investing in Hispanic-Latino wealth means supporting entrepreneurs so they are set up for success. Early-stage funding is critical for the growth of a new business, especially when Hispanic-Latino entrepreneurs are still faced with gaps in financial literacy and business education, funding, and networking opportunities.

According to data from Crunchbase, Latino-founded startups accounted for only 2.1 percent of venture investments in the U.S. last year. This is unjustifiable.

As part of our commitment to advancing racial equality and economic opportunity, we have dedicated $350 million in minority- and women-led companies through capital investment by mission-focused venture funds. Of the funds we have in our portfolio, one in every four are led by Hispanic-Latino managers, providing capital that will help entrepreneurs and small business owners grow their businesses, create jobs, and improve financial stability.

An important element to creating opportunities for Hispanic-Latinos to build wealth, whether as a business owner or an employee, is ensuring that young people recognize higher education as a pathway to achieve success. That means partnering with colleges and universities and investing in job creation, skills-building, and support services for students to do so. Locally, we do this with EMERGE Fellowship and with the University of Houston College of Medicine. When we invest in students, we are investing in future professionals and business leaders who will build Hispanic-Latino wealth and contribute to Houston’s economy and culture. This is something we can celebrate together for years to come.

Investing in sustainable homeownership

Sustainable homeownership provides a lasting investment for future generations and cycles capital into the community. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) recently released data showing an increase in Latino homeownership, from 47.5 percent in 2019 to 48.4 percent in 2021, the highest level since the mid-2000s. Through the Community Homeownership Commitment, which provides low down payment loans and closing cost grants, families can take their savings and turn them into lasting legacies. It is a pillar for families to build wealth.

Here in Houston, we also support organizations that assist with homeownership, like Tejano Center, Avenue CDC, and Houston Habitat for Humanity. Building Hispanic-Latino home equity increases the amount of capital families can use now or in the future helping build our Houston economy.

During the past decade, the rate of Hispanic-Latino economic development has far outpaced rates among non-Hispanics. Supporting and honoring our Hispanic-Latino clients is not just a month-long initiative, it is a long-term, generational investment in America and we are proud to be investing in a stronger economy for Houston now and for years to come.

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Rick Jaramillo is the market executive for Bank of America Houston.