Boring! Kodiak’s Trucks Calmly Drive Themselves While Safety Driver Watches

Boring! Kodiak’s Trucks Calmly Drive Themselves While Safety Driver Watches

Self-driving trucks developed by Kodiak Robotics, Inc. are now routinely navigating Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston, a 200-mile journey, without a safety driver ever needing to take any corrective action.

Based in Silicon Valley, Kodiak was founded in 2018 by self-driving industry veteran Don Burnette and venture capitalist Paz Eshel. The company delivers freight for its customers daily on this route, operating autonomously on the highway portion of the route. A truck driver takes care of getting the load from the customer’s distribution center to the interstate entry ramp and then transitions control to the Automated Driving System (ADS). At this point, the “driver” becomes a “safety driver” who monitors the traffic and truck to intervene as needed in the event of an unusual situation or system fault. A “system operator” is in the passenger seat, continuously monitoring performance.

Kodiak launched commercial services in mid-2019, making over 600 commercial deliveries using their autonomous technology since then.

Kodiak CEO Don Burnette said, “We believe we’re the first company in the industry to achieve this level of performance on an ongoing basis: previous autonomous deliveries relied heavily on hacks or stunts, such as driving on empty highways. We see these deliveries as another sign that despite recent skepticism about AVs, companies like Kodiak are making rapid progress towards actual commercial deployments – it’s a great example of how far the industry has come, and what’s left to accomplish.”

Continuing, he said, “We used our production hardware and software, without resorting to shortcuts that only work under constrained conditions. The delivery reflects that we’re increasingly able to handle the full range of highway driving scenarios, from easy stuff like the open road and lane changes to tough challenges like vehicles on the shoulder, merges, and of course complicated construction zones.”  

In a Medium article posted today, Kodiak further emphasizes the difference between impressive demonstrations, in which the setting is relatively simple and expensive specialized tech is in place, and what it takes to develop a scale-able product with robust performance.

The Problem With Automated Driving These Days

Automated driving is conceptually awesome but experientially a snore. In their Medium article, Kodiak posted the full video showing their first Dallas to Houston run that didn't require the safety driver to disengage the ADS. The video runs at 10x speed, so it’s only 20 minutes long. Or you can watch a set of consecutive disengage-free runs, 829 miles in total, which takes 80 minutes in sped-up time. In other words, do you want to be so bored you fall off your chair?

Success in autonomy is tedious for the observer. Or to put it another way, expert and safe driving is not thrilling to watch. As Dan Goff, Head of Policy at Kodiak, relayed, “My mom apologized for only watching ten minutes of the videos, and I told her ‘Mom, nobody should be forced to watch these. They're boring, which is how they should be.’”

What were the conditions on the route? The truck was running day and night in good weather over the course of a single thirteen-hour day. Construction zones were relatively simple, with one long segment of cones and concrete barriers starting at minute 23 in the longer video. Kodiak’s 2020 Video recap showed much more challenging construction zones that their trucks successfully navigated last year.

My June 2020 article on Kodiak highlighted their Safety Report, which emphasized a metric of “learnings per mile,” noting that going too long without disengagements, “means we aren’t learning and we need to stress the system some more.” At that time, Kodiak called this approach “disciplined innovation,” saying “we see our lower mileage count not as a risk, but as a sign of our commitment to safety.” Do these statements contradict the long runs without disengagements that are occurring now? Burnette responded by saying, “For our commercial deliveries, we are focused on delivering freight safely and on-time for our customers, not just on technology development. Our testing and development runs are solely focused on improving and expanding our capabilities: we therefore expect them to have a higher number of disengages, so we can learn more. As we discussed in the Safety Report, we have a well-defined software release process, where every week, a ‘release candidate’ build is benchmarked in simulation and on-the-road against a ‘stable’ build. This release process allows us to keep learning and improving the system. We can make changes and build new features that we know will increase disengages and allow us to learn more, while continuing to use our ‘stable’ build to support customer operations.”

This means that safety drivers who are manning “stable build” Kodiak trucks, while still required to remain alert, are being exposed to a more monotonous situation. They aren’t using arms and legs to drive, as regular truck drivers do. Like most truck ADS developers, the Kodiak system uses video-based driver monitoring to track alertness of all their safety drivers. Does success in autonomy reduce disengagements so much as to create a situation in which the monotony is too much? Burnette noted, “Driver monotony is certainly an issue that we're thinking about. We use a Driver Monitoring System that has an AI-based algorithm that automatically detects when a driver may be drowsy or distracted. We are talking to our industry partners to think through approaches for keeping safety drivers engaged, even when we're going very long stretches without interventions.”

Kodiak’s transparency in posting these videos is helpful for the entire industry, allowing the world to see how state-of-the-art automated driving systems operate in real-world conditions.

Kodiak calls their series of no-intervention freight runs “a major milestone.” Others active in this space are many: startups Aurora, Einride, Embark, Plus, Pony.ai, TuSimple, and Waymo, as well as truck manufacturers Daimler, Volvo Trucks, and Traton. Given the steadily increasing maturity of this industry, it wouldn't surprise me if some of these companies have had similar results which they haven’t chosen to publicize.

Like their competitors, Kodiak plans on deploying fully driverless trucks in the coming years. As these products enter the market, “no drama” driving will become the expectation of shippers. Competitive discriminators will key on cost, maintenance intensity, robustness to a wide range of weather and terrain, and how often the trucks are stymied by conditions and must pull off the road to ask for help.

Rather than being a science experiment, automated trucking has entered the phase in which freight vehicles are delivering freight! That’s one smart truck, if a little dull to watch.