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.'"