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Kodiak Robotics’ founder explains why autonomous freight could brush off inflation

If solving the problems of autonomous driving were a question of money, it'd have been solved long before now. That's the primary argument of Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of autonomous trucking startup Kodiak Robotics, which has expanded its business and hit milestones with a fraction of the funds that bigger players like Waymo have.

Over the past year, Kodiak has launched commercial pilots and partnerships with Ceva Logistics and US Xpress, two large trucking and logistics companies; begun using two new autonomous freight lanes outside of Texas and has raised a $125 million Series B, bringing its total funding to $165 million since 2018.

One of the few private autonomous vehicle companies on the market, Kodiak lives by the mantra of doing more with less. Last year, Burnette told us Kodiak could deploy a commercial-scale operation for $500 million. That’s about 10% of what Waymo has raised and less than 25% of TuSimple’s IPO.

Kodiak is still aiming for that goal and has now secured a reputation for keeping a tight balance sheet and an even tighter focus on chasing self-driving trucks, and only self-driving trucks. Someone else can solve the other autonomy issues.

Someone else can also solve the issues of building sensors and labeling data, according to Burnette, who relies on third parties for such components. In Kodiak’s eyes, building lidar in-house and spending time and resources on labeling data is nothing but an expensive distraction from creating a safe and viable go-to-market strategy.

“I'm not seeing as much negativity around the markets as I'm hearing publicly, and that gives me some optimism that this market is still exciting and healthy.” Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO, Kodiak Robotics

It's been a year since the last time we interviewed Burnette for this series, so we caught up to talk about how scrapping HD maps has allowed Kodiak to expand into interstate trucking lanes faster than competitors; how removable sensor pods will help Kodiak scale; and why autonomous trucking may be immune to today’s bear market.

Editor's note: The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: Autonomous trucking feels like it’s becoming more competitive as the industry matures. How does Kodiak stand out?

Burnette: An important piece of the story we wanted to tell was the modularity of the system, because it was informed by conversations with partners. Last month, we demonstrated how easy it is to replace one of our sensor pods in the field by a non-AV trained technician. (Kodiak’s sensor pods include one lidar, two radar and three cameras, and they replace the truck’s stock sideview mirrors).

That last bit was really important to us, because the first question we get when we talk to pretty much anybody in the trucking industry is, “If I have an AV fleet, how do I maintain that fleet?”

We have focused on ensuring that the AV platform doesn't get in the way of the existing routine maintenance infrastructure pipeline that exists for these partners. We think that's a unique offering that other folks are not paying attention to, and I think you're going to see a shift toward our designs and technologies in the next couple of years.

Can the sensor pods be placed in any type of freight truck to make them autonomous?

That's right. We have designed it to be very agnostic to the truck provider — we have worked on all of the big four platforms to ensure that this design meshes with all of the different providers out there in a clean and seamless way.

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