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When it comes to testing autonomous truck routes, Texas is apparently the place to be. Referring to the Lone Star State as a “hotbed of activity with AV testing partnerships,” Trucking Dive’s David Taube notes that several companies have initiated autonomous trucking routes there — including Waabi and Uber Freight (between Dallas and Houston); and Aurora Innovation and Werner Enterprises (between Fort Worth and El Paso).

The latest addition? Kodiak Robotics and A.P. Møller-Mærsk, which recently announced the launch of a route between Houston and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

An interstate first

A Kodiak announcement about the new route notes that it is the “first commercial autonomous trucking lane between Houston and Oklahoma City” and that the new freight lane marks an expansion of the collaboration between the two companies. Kodiak and Maersk launched their first autonomous freight deliveries together in November 2022 as part of Maersk’s Global Innovation Center Program. Since August, Kodiak has been delivering eight loads per week for Maersk customers, with a safety driver behind the wheel.

“Teaming with Kodiak enables Maersk to stay at the forefront of innovative solutions,” said Erez Agmoni, Maersk’s global head of innovation – logistics & services. “Autonomous trucks will play an instrumental role in digitizing the supply chain. We expect self-driving trucks to ultimately become a competitive advantage for Maersk as we execute on our strategy to provide customers with a sustainable, end-to-end logistics solution across air, land, and sea.”

On the new route, Kodiak and Maersk are completing four round trips per week on a 24-hour-a-day, four-day-a-week basis between a Houston facility, where consumer products are loaded onto 53-foot trailers, to a distribution center in Oklahoma City.

“Since our founding, we have focused on developing an autonomous product that is easy for global innovation leaders to integrate into their networks, and Maersk is a perfect fit,” said Don Burnette, Founder and CEO, Kodiak. “Hauling commercial freight gives us the opportunity to work together to integrate Kodiak’s autonomous trucking solution into Maersk’s operations. As the first autonomous trucking company to establish this new commercial lane between Houston and Oklahoma City, we are demonstrating our team’s ability to introduce new lanes and bring new efficiencies to the entire logistics industry.”

One key to success: route selection

As we noted in a previous post on the topic, one key to the success of autonomous trucking pursuits is selecting the right routes, according to experts from Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

In a BCG report, “Mapping the Future of Autonomous Trucking,” long-haul trucks are identified as “one of the most appealing use cases for full self-driving vehicles.”

However, the experts say a critical factor in this dynamic is the “the ability of AV providers and fleet operators to identify the most appropriate routes on which to trial and ultimately operate their autonomous commercial vehicles.”

In early 2022, BCG and Kodiak worked together to identify routes between major metropolitan areas in the U.S. that would be the most promising. “BCG’s data analytics group BCG GAMMA developed an interactive dashboard that applies a prioritization algorithm to define optimal routes according to filters chosen by the user,” the experts explain.

Through their work together, BCG GAMMA and Kodiak eventually came up with five primary criteria to evaluate these routes:

  1. Distance—which was grouped into four categories of 200 to 350 miles, 350 to 600 miles, 600 to 1,200 miles, and 1,200 + miles.

  2. AV Legislation—to help filter potential routes as “driverless ready” or “testing ready and above” according to state-level AV legislation.

  3. Weather—to identify routes located in the “Sun Belt” to limit weather challenges.

  4. Freight Density—which “leveraged the 2017 Commodity Flow Survey (CFS) for data on the round-trip freight volume transported by trucks between MA pairs.”

  5. Density of Truck Stops and Warehouses—which is needed to inform long-term planning for a route network, “because even when completely autonomous trucks are deployed on highways, they will initially still need to stop at waypoints near highways so that drivers can complete the last few miles of the off-highway route to their destinations.”

In light of their work and the recent news from Kodiak and Maersk, perhaps a trip between Houston and Oklahoma City was considered a potential option.

Safer roads, better jobs?

In its announcement, Kodiak said safety “continues to be a perennial challenge for the trucking industry” and cited U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research that estimates that 94% of crashes are the result of human error.

“For Kodiak, safety and performance are foundational to its autonomous trucking solution,” the announcement said. “Each vehicle is equipped with 18 different sensors, including cameras, radar, and lidar, that provide the platform with a 360-degree view around the truck. Every tenth of a second, the truck evaluates the performance of more than 1,000 safety-critical processes and components in both the self-driving stack and the underlying truck platform. The trucks learn in parallel, with system upgrades shared to the entire fleet simultaneously, and are not subject to environmental distractions.”

During an Oct. 16 educational session at the American Trucking Associations’ 2023 Management Conference & Exhibition, panelists concurred that the use of autonomous trucks may create safer roads — as well as better job opportunities for drivers.

In a post for Transport Topics, Managing Editor Seth Clevenger notes that “Autonomous truck developers and their industry partners see opportunities for this technology to not only unlock greater efficiency in freight transportation, but also to improve road safety and create more desirable jobs for professional drivers.”

He describes related perspectives of leaders from a number of trucking companies and autonomous truck developers who were present — including Aurora, Schneider, J.B. Hunt, and Uber Freight.

Clevenger notes that several other companies are also “actively developing autonomous driving technology for commercial trucks.” In addition to Kodiak Robotics, he lists Torc Robotics, TuSimple, Plus, Waabi, Stack AV, Robotic Research, Gatik and Einride.

Describing the rapid progress that some companies are making, Clevenger cites Ossa Fisher, president of Aurora as saying that many of the challenges that have made the reality of autonomous trucks so elusive have finally been resolved.

“We are at a true inflection point in this industry and the way we operate on our roads,” she reportedly said. “The big technological barriers have been overcome, and it’s not just Aurora, its several players.”

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