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More driverless trucks

Look out on I-45.

When Don Burnette worked at Otto, a self-driving truck startup, his team hit some pretty big milestones. It recorded the first shipment of cargo delivered by a self-driving truck: 50,000 cans of Budweiser in 2016. It was acquired by Uber the same year.

But something didn’t feel right to Burnette, an engineer by trade who’s spent almost a decade in the self-driving vehicle industry.

“That was very much a demo-like system,” Burnette said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “It wasn’t built with production or scale in mind. And it wasn’t quite the technology that was going to push the industry forward.”

When Uber shifted away from self-driving trucks last year, Burnette saw an opportunity. He helped create Kodiak Robotics in 2018, with the hope that driverless trucks could serve commercial clients.

Kodiak Robotics is putting down roots in Texas, and has become one of the first self-driving trucking companies operating in the state. The Dallas-to-Houston (and back) route features a safety driver behind the wheel.

And humans take over for more challenging stretches between freeways and final destinations. Once Kodiak masters the “middle mile” — freeway driving that’s a large part of most routes — it’ll tackle the non-highway driving that’s proven difficult to other driverless startups.

See here and here for more about the driverless trucks currently on the highways in Texas. They’re not fully autonomous, of course – they all have safety drivers, and they all need to be human-operated off the interstates. For the time being at least, that’s a pretty good combination all around – the drivers stay rested, and the trucks can get where they’re going safely. As with all autonomous vehicles, the question is how far off are they from not needing the human drivers at all. For all the breathless prose in these stories, that part remains vague. TechCrunch and Wired have more.

Here come the driverless trucks

Coming soon to a freeway near you.

Self-driving 18-wheelers will soon cruise next to you down Interstate 10 and other major Texas freeways.

TuSimple, a California-based autonomous truck start-up, has been mapping routes and plans to haul commercial loads from Arizona to San Antonio, Houston and other Texas cities. The company will likely make a major announcement next month, Chief Product Officer Chuck Price told me.

Safety drivers will initially sit behind the wheel, but Price hopes to take them out by the end of next year. The age of autonomy has arrived.

“We’re probably going to spend $1 billion to make this happen, and we have investors that are committed to deliver the funds over time,” he said before showing off his technology at the recent SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin.

Price’s confidence comes in stark contrast to most of the news about self-driving technology over the past year. Uber, Waymo and independent analysts have adopted a more pessimistic tone about how soon autonomous passenger cars will hit the road.

The trucking business, though, is different. Companies dispatch thousands of loads a day along the same fixed routes, from one distribution center to another. Big trucks spend most of their time on the highway, not negotiating tight urban intersections. That makes training the algorithms easier.

Most importantly, the trucking industry is motivated. The age of the average driver keeps rising and finding new ones willing to spend lonely nights on the road is difficult.

[…]

The company plans to grow its fleet to 50 trucks by June to test its software.

“By the time we get to the end of 2020, we’re going to have tens of millions of miles that are proving the system out on fixed runs from Arizona all the way down to Houston,” Price said.

Here’s a couple of stories about the company, which I’d not heard of before. I actually think they’ll be fine for the most part on the freeways – they better be, that’s for sure – but color me skeptical about how these things will handle once they’re on city streets. You can take the company’s optimism however you like, I think those safety drivers will be necessary for longer than they think they will. And now that I know these trucks exist, I’ll be on the lookout for them while I’m driving on I-10.