May 17, 2022 - D Magazine

Automated Trucking Rolls Into North Texas

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Kodiak Robotics and AllianceTexas are teaming up to bring the future of transportation to North Texas.

You may not have known it when you drove by an automated truck here in North Texas, and that is precisely the point. With technology honed and perfected at transportation mega-hub AllianceTexas, several automated vehicle companies are operating on North Texas roads. And it is only the beginning.

Part of the supply chain chokepoint is the 80,000 shortage of long haul truck drivers. That deficit is expected to balloon to 160,000 by 2028. AllianceTexas’ mobility innovation zone has played a vital role in developing several companies’ automated technology. Alliance’s intermodal port allows for smooth and automated interaction between truck, train, and air freight, providing the infrastructure and space necessary to make automated vehicles a reality here in North Texas.

“We said we wanted to go and start trying to commercialize something to give these companies a way to come and scale these technologies knowing that there are a lot of folks in this page going to take a lot of coordination,” says Russell Laughlin, executive vice president at Hillwood. He leads infrastructure planning at the 27,000-acre master-planned community AllianceTexas. “We believe that supply chain and logistics will lead the adoption of autonomy and mobility.”

Kodiak Robotics is one company that has benefitted from that relationship. The company’s engineering headquarters are based in California, but their operational headquarters are here in North Texas, where the nearly two dozen trucks have been delivering goods for paying customers since 2019. Kodiak was founded by Don Burnette, who cut his automated vehicle teeth as one of the original software engineers working on Google’s driverless car before he saw an opportunity to move into the trucking space.

Kodiak’s North Texas trucks aren’t driverless–yet. Right now, there is a safety driver who drives the vehicle to and from the highway when the system takes over for the long haul miles. It isn’t too different from how a pilot in a commercial airline will switch to autopilot once the plane has reached cruising altitude. “You probably have seen one of our trucks on the road, and you probably didn’t give it much thought because they drive pretty normal,” says Daniel Goff, head of external affairs at Kodiak. “They stay in the right lane; they don’t speed, weave in and out of traffic, and don’t stop and start suddenly.” Kodiak has never received a complaint from another driver via the Texas Department of Transportation.

The company’s trucks operate between Dallas, Houston, Austin, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio and have a pilot to Atlanta starting soon. Kodiak is focusing on long-haul trips rather than first- and last-mile for a few reasons. First, the technology isn’t quite where it needs to be to deal with more difficult surface streets. Secondly, the labor shortage and with supply chain issues means that companies have more demand for long-haul work than trips within the region. “By focusing our technology on those long haul miles, we can create sustainable first and last-mile jobs that allow people to be home not missing their families for days and days at a time,” Goff says.

Aurora Innovation is also in the autonomous vehicle space, and their operations focus on Texas as well. They have partnered with clients like FedEx and Uber freight to deliver goods with manned autonomous vehicles made by Peterbilt between Houston and Palmer, Texas.

Aurora was founded in 2017 by Sterling Anderson, Drew Bagnell and Chris Urmson, who was also part of the Google self-driving car. The company works with vehicle manufacturers and installs its hardware and software on the vehicles before launching them on the roads.

Texas is a hub for many of these companies because of its growing population and business-friendly regulatory environment. House Bill 2205 passed unanimously in 2017 and implemented safety standards for automated vehicles in the state. The bill aligned standards with the national highway safety regulations but prevented local municipalities from creating their own criteria for autonomous vehicles.

The bill says that automated trucking companies have to follow all the same rules that regular trucking companies do, including insurance for the company and class-C licenses, and drive-time limits for safety drivers. Being treated just like other companies is precisely what the Kodiaks and Auroras of the world want. In addition to the regulatory openness, Kodiak has benefitted from a desire to bring innovative companies from private and public interests to the region.

“We have had a lot of people happy to have us, from TxDOT to the North Central Texas Council of Governments and private sector partners like Alliance,” Goff says. “They are people who are open to the technology and excited to have companies like Kodiak in the area.”

Texas’ geography is also friendly to the technology. It gets a bit of all seasons, but overall the weather doesn’t pose many challenges to autonomous vehicles. “Texas has long stretches of highway that are conducive to this technology,” says Jeremiah Kuntz, who is the government relations manager at Aurora. “There is also a large amount of freight that moves in and through this state, so it makes a lot of sense to locate in Texas because it fits the business model.”

Goff says the next couple of years could see Kodiak’s transition from trucks with safety drivers to completely driverless vehicles, but it is already happening elsewhere. Automated trucking company TuSimple has been piloting driverless vehicles on the 113 highway miles between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona. It will soon be partnering with Union Pacific to move freight along that route.

Kodiak is looking to expand its fleet to 25 by the end of the year to increase its ability to test the vehicles and serve more clients. There are still some hurdles to overcome, such as the rule that says if a semi-truck is broken down on the side of the road, the driver has to place cones or flares behind the truck to alert other drivers. That requirement might be tricky for driverless vehicles, but companies are working with transportation and law enforcement departments to find a solution.

Aurora is looking to launch a Texas route for commercial partners at the end of next year, and have secured non-binding reservations through 2025. In May, Aurora partnered with Covenant, a logistics company that is looking to use driverless technology to augment its long-haul trucking business.

Operators in the space are confident about the safety and efficacy of the technology. They run countless scenarios and prove the technology can perform better than humans. By the time a vehicle is driverless, it has been through much more than the 15-minute driver test that teenagers have to pass. “We’re talking about a vehicle that, by the time it’s driverless, will be the most tested, proven out, carefully analyzed driver in history.”