March 05, 2022

A leading logistics center: How autonomous trucking is ramping up in DFW

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The Mobility Innovation Zone at AllianceTexas is playing a growing role in the region with autonomous trucking.

Dallas-Fort Worth is no stranger to 18-wheelers as a key junction for moving freight around the state and beyond. Now the region is getting more from what’s seen as at least part of the future of logistics: autonomous trucking.

While headquarters for these driverless machines hail from other states, it’s North Texas that’s playing a crucial role in helping refine and improve technology for the trucks. Locals may see people still in cabins amid the testing as the vehicles assist in shipping.

That’s not to say the Dallas area is the only place. But cities such as Palmer and Coppell — along with AllianceTexas — are seeing investments in sites for the vehicle operations. There are also more employees getting hired as the market gets more attention.

“The trucking industry wants this,” Richard Bishop, an automated vehicles industry analyst, said in an interview. “There are enough key large trucking fleets that have partnered up with these technology companies. I see nothing standing in the way of a lot of freight on the interstate highways now — (that) could be carried in driverless mode.”

Dallas is benefitting from its longstanding role in shipping and trucking, stretching back to well before the recent discussions involving autonomous. It also is getting help from the networks around Texas and the state’s key legislation that enabled testing of autonomous trucking, unlike some. There’s also the good weather, which is helpful when piloting new driving tech, and access to talent.

It's all happening amid growing demand for deliveries to people's front doors, spurred by the effects of COVID-19. There is a strain on logistics, and struggles with securing workers aren’t helping.

 

'Efficient to deploy'

Texas is an essential shipping state already. Interstate inbound freight shipments by value put it at No. 1 in the U.S., according to information provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics last year tied to 2017 data.

There are some big publicly traded names in autonomous trucking that have set up shop in DFW. That includes Waymo Via, part of the company that includes Silicon Valley’s Google, along with Pittsburgh-based Aurora and San Diego’s TuSimple.

There are others, including a Cambridge, Mass., company called ISEE, according to co-founder and CEO, Yibiao Zhao, in an emailed response to questions from the Dallas Business Journal. It’s planning to ramp up hiring as it provides autonomous logistics trucks and supports the supply chain.

Yet another move came recently when California-based Embark announced a strategic partnership with Alterra Property Group, a real estate investment company, to identify and launch transfer point sites – and Dallas is one of the key markets it’s planning to operate in, according to a spokesperson.

Embark is running autonomous trucks from its operations centers and transfer points in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston.

“Dallas is a major freight hub that is home to a large amount of freight traffic and is geographically well-positioned for autonomous long-haul routes,” the spokesperson said in an email. “It is at a location that makes it efficient to deploy autonomous freight at scale.”

 

Waymo has put its roots down in Lancaster and expects to bring hundreds of jobs to work out of that facility, in collaboration with vendors and partners, a spokesperson said. These will be roles across our operations team — most of which are specifically for the autonomous trucks, such as AV fleet dispatchers, AV fleet technicians and AV software operators along with CDL commercial driver’s license) autonomous specialists.

“It will be our primary operations center in Texas designed for commercial use with our carrier partners,” the spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions, noting one partner is C.H. Robinson. “The hub will not only bolster our operations in Texas, but it will also support long haul routes across the Southwest and connect with our Phoenix operations center.”

With Aurora, the team in the Dallas area was recently at about 70 and growing quickly. It has locations in Palmer and Coppell. In Texas, some of the roles include autonomous operations specialists, service engineers, plus hardware and software engineers, among other roles. Additional terminals in Texas are slated for this year.

It’s hauling freight for customers today from its terminal — and that makes the area critical, as it works toward launching a commercial product.

“Texas, and Dallas by extension, is an important testing ground for us,” the spokesperson said. “We are proud and excited to develop, test, and deploy our autonomous trucking product” in the state."

 

'Internationally recognized'

Kodiak Robotics, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., has planted its flag in the Dallas area with a site that covers more than 75,000 square feet in Lancaster. It had about 30 folks there recently and is hiring.

“Within trucking, I think the supply chain crisis has really shone a light on the need for this technology,” said Daniel Goff, head of external affairs at Kodiak.

The company, which is hardly a new player to the Dallas area with autonomous trucking, is coming off an announcement for a $125 million funding effort that was unveiled in November. Kodiak has been building and operating self-driving trucks designed to operate on highway routes.

“We’re growing the team,” Goff said. “We’re growing the fleet.”

A newer name is Gatik, which has offices in California. The company pushed into Texas in August – and to support that expansion in the state, partnered with the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone, according to Richard Steiner, head of policy and communications. Its trucks are smaller than big semis, providing help with short-haul logistics.

It recently hired about 20 new roles in the state and anticipates creating over 500 new jobs by 2025, including operational, technical, vehicle maintenance and business roles.

“Dallas-Fort Worth is internationally recognized as one of the world’s leading logistics centers in terms of innovation, sophisticated infrastructure and a highly-skilled workforce,” Steiner said. “Combined with a dense customer base, a progressive and well-structured regulatory environment, and an ideal climate, bringing the advantages of our autonomous middle mile solution to customers in the Texas ecosystem was a very natural step for us.”

 

AllianceTexas

The Mobility Innovation Zone at AllianceTexas is playing a growing role in the region with autonomous trucking.

TuSimple, which is based in California, has set up shop at the site – and Hillwood, the real estate developer, earlier this year announced a collaboration to integrate the autonomous trucking company’s infrastructure specifications into industrial and commercial properties.

It’s an agreement to help “us design our next generation of warehouse logistics facilities,” said Russell Laughlin, executive vice president of Hillwood, in an interview. There are questions around how some of the facilities should be set up and operated to interact with autonomous efforts, including trucking and technology.

Companies at AllianceTexas are “evaluating autonomy,” he said.

“We really think Dallas-Fort Worth has the opportunity to lead in the commercialized adoption of this autonomy in the supply chain,” Laughlin said as he talked about how autonomous trucking can be followed by related efforts. “It's really, really big from our perspective and important.”

It’s in a good place with AllianceTexas, with more than 550 companies.

Already, there’s plenty of activity around shipping with AllianceTexas. That includes a BNSF intermodal facility, among other players in the market.

There is a lot "of opportunity,” Laughlin said.

 

ISEE

ISEE opened an office in the Dallas area in 2020, and one of its key customers, a Fortune 100 consumer-packaged-goods company, has a warehouse facility in DFW. Its offerings are used at logistics yards where shipments are handled at warehouses and fulfillment centers as trucks pick up and drop off goods.  

The company provides proprietary technology that includes both software and hardware – and integrates with the yard management system, along with equipment.

“Customers can automate their existing yards without disruption while reducing costs through improved cycle times,” Zhao said.

The company is growing in the DFW area.

“Dallas-Fort Worth is a leading industrial market and given the increased demand for warehouse and distribution space due to the pandemic, the region’s job growth, construction, and affordability have only made it more attractive,” Zhao said.