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Autonomous trucking company Plus drives faster transition to semi-autonomous trucks

This article is part of a VB Lab Insight series paid for by Plus.


Breaking away from the competition, Plus, a Silicon Valley-based provider of autonomous trucking technology, is taking an innovative driver-in approach to commercialization that aligns with the critical challenges facing the trucking industry today.

According to newly-released estimates of traffic fatalities in 2021, crashes involving at least one large truck increased 13% compared to the previous year.

With a nationwide truck driver shortage estimated at 80,000 last year and growing, PlusDrive, Plus’s market-ready supervised autonomous driving solution, helps long-haul operators reduce stress while improving safety for all road users.

First-to-market solution helps fleets today

In 2021 Plus achieved a critical industry milestone, becoming the first self-driving trucking technology company to deliver a commercial product to the hands of customers. Over the past year Plus has delivered units of PlusDrive to some of the world’s largest fleets and truck manufacturers.

These units are not demos or test systems. Shippers have installed the technology on their trucks and PlusDrive-equipped trucks with the shippers’ drivers are hauling commercial loads on public roads nationwide.

PlusDrive improves safety and driver comfort, and saves at least 10% in fuel expenses, addressing driver recruitment and retention while offsetting surging diesel prices and other costs tied to today’s volatile trucking market.

Plus’s first-to-market shipments and installations validate the progress the company has made in developing a safe, reliable driver-in technology solution for the long-haul trucking industry.

PlusDrive will reach more fleets this year as Plus continues to expand the close collaboration with customers pioneering the use of driver-in autonomous trucking technology for their heavy-duty truck operations.

Partnerships unlock commercial pathways for PlusDrive

Partnerships with industry stakeholders — from automotive suppliers to truck manufacturers and regulators — have been critical to Plus’s success, helping to unlock innovation and commercial pathways to deploy its technology globally. Its autonomous driving technology can be retrofitted on existing trucks or installed at the factory level. With Cummins and IVECO, Plus is also developing autonomous trucks powered by natural gas for the U.S. and Europe.

Building on the market penetration it has achieved already, Plus this month announced a collaboration with Velociti, a fleet technology solutions company, creating a nationwide installation and service network capable of delivering PlusDrive semi-autonomous trucks to customers within 12 hours. Maintenance services are also available nationwide by utilizing mobile resources to meet customers at their preferred location.

The program, known as Plus Build, equips Class 8 trucks with state-of-the-art lidar, radar and camera sensors and Plus’s proprietary autonomous driving software. 

With PlusDrive, truck drivers stay in the cabin to oversee the Level 4 technology, but they do not have to actively drive the vehicle. Instead, they can turn on PlusDrive to automatically drive the truck on highways in all traffic conditions, including staying centered in the lane, changing lanes and handling stop-and-go traffic. PlusDrive reduces driver stress and fatigue, providing a compelling recruitment and retention tool during a time of driver shortages.

Velociti’s nationwide installation and maintenance network will help get PlusDrive into the hands of more truck drivers across the country, making their jobs “safer, easier and better,” said Shawn Kerrigan, COO and co-founder of Plus.

“Plus Build helps companies unlock the benefits of autonomous driving technology today by quickly modernizing trucks to improve their safety and uptime.”

Drivers are on board for next-generation autonomous driving technology

Plus works closely with customers, drivers and industry partners to help them understand the advantages of PlusDrive. Their testimonials validate the key benefits of the system.

“I am an admitted cynic, and I was blown away,” said commercial vehicle and transportation industry analyst Ann Rundle, Vice President of ACT Research. After taking a demo ride of a PlusDrive-enabled truck at the recent Advanced Clean Transportation Expo, Rundle said, “It was so seamless. I suppose if I wasn’t watching the screen that indicated the system is ‘Engaged’ I might have wondered [if PlusDrive was indeed still doing the driving].”

A professional driver invited to test PlusDrive echoed those sentiments. “If I were to have a system like this in my truck,” he said, “it would make my job a whole lot smoother, easier and a lot less stressful.”

Another operator from a customer fleet praised PlusDrive for “reinforcing safety; just keep giving us these tools — it’s a tool to help us help the company.” 

PlusDrive keeps economy moving, safely

Startups competing for a slice of the self-driving trucking future are aligned on the long-term goal of getting fully driverless commercial trucks (with no safety drivers) on the road. But Plus stands out as the only company to release a product that enables fleets and drivers to benefit from automation today, when there is little sign of an end to the chaos and stress roiling the freight markets. Through its collaborative, considered approach to delivering its autonomous trucking technology as a commercial product now, Plus is maximizing benefits for fleets while making long-haul trucking safer and easier for the hard-working operators who keep the nation’s economy moving.


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Categories
AI

Kodiak Robotics to expand autonomous trucking with $125M

Kodiak Robotics, a startup developing self-driving truck technologies, today announced that it raised $125 million in an oversubscribed series B round for a total of $165 million to date. The tranche — which includes investments from SIP Global Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Battery Ventures, CRV, Muirwoods Ventures, Harpoon Ventures, StepStone Group, Gopher Asset Management, Walleye Capital, Aliya Capital Partners, and others — will be put toward expanding Kodiak’s team, adding trucks to its fleet, and growing its autonomous service capabilities, according to CEO Don Burnette.

“Our series B drives us into hyper-growth so we can double our team, our fleet, and continue to scale our business,” Burnette said in a statement. “With [it], we will further accelerate towards launching our commercial self-driving service with our partners in the coming years to help address these critical challenges.”

While autonomous trucks could face challenges in commercializing at scale until clearer regulatory guidelines are established, the technology has the potential to reduce the cost of trucking from $1.65 per mile to $1.30 per mile by mid-decade, according to a Pitchbook analysis. That’s perhaps why in the first half of 2021, investors poured a record $5.6 billion into driverless trucking companies, eclipsing the $4.2 billion invested in all of 2020.

The semi- and fully autonomous truck market will reach approximately $88 billion by 2027, a recent Acumen Research and Consulting estimates, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10.1% between 2020 and 2027.

Kodiak technology

Kodiak, which was cofounded by Burnette and former venture capitalist Paz Eshel, emerged from stealth in 2018. After leaving Google’s self-driving project for Otto in early 2016, Burnette briefly worked at Uber following the company’s acquisition of Otto in 2016 at a reported $680 million valuation.

“I was very fortunate to be an early member of and software tech lead at the Google self-driving car project, the predecessor to Waymo. I spent five years there working on robotaxis, but ultimately came to believe that there were tons of technical challenges for such applications, and the business case wasn’t clear,” Burnette told VentureBeat via email. “I realized in those early days that long-haul trucking represented a more compelling use case than robotaxis. I wanted a straight-forward go-to-market opportunity, and I saw early on that autonomous trucking was the logical first application at scale.”

Kodiak’s self-driving platform uses a combination of light detection and ranging radar known as lidar as well as camera, radar, and sonar hardware. A custom computer processes sensor data and plans the truck’s path. Overseen by a safety driver, the brakes, steering column, and throttle are controlled by the computer to move the truck to its destination.

Kodiak

Kodiak’s sensor suite collects raw data about the world around the truck, processing raw data to locate and classify objects and pedestrians. The above-mentioned computer reconciles the data with lightweight road maps, which are shipped to Kodiak’s fleet over the air and contain information about the highway, including construction zones and lane changes.

Kodiak claims its technology can detect shifting lanes, speed changes, heavy machinery, road workers, construction-specific signs, and more in rain or sunshine. Moreover, the company says its truck can merge on and off highways and anticipate rush hour, holiday traffic, and construction backups, adjusting their braking and acceleration to optimize for delivery windows while maximizing fuel efficiency.

“Slower-moving vehicles, interchanges, vehicles on the shoulder, and even unexpected obstacles are common on highways. The Kodiak Driver can identify, plan, and execute a path around obstacles to safely continue towards its destination,” Kodiak says on its website. “The Kodiak Driver was built from the ground up specifically for trucks. Trucks run for hundreds of thousands of miles, in the harshest of environments, for extremely long stretches. Our focus has always been on building technology that’s reliable, safe, automotive-grade, and commercial ready.”

The growing network of autonomous trucking

In the U.S. alone, the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates that there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers on the roads, with close to 8 million people employed across the segment. Trucks moved more than 80.4% percent of all U.S. freight and generated $791.7 billion in revenue in 2019, according to the ATA.

But the growing driver shortage remains a strain on the industry. Estimates peg the shortfall of long-haul truck drivers at 60,000 in the U.S., a gap that’s projected to widen to 160,000 within the decade.

Chasing after the lucrative opportunity, autonomous vehicle startups focused on freight delivery have racked up hundreds of millions in venture capital. In May, Plus agreed to merge with a special purpose acquisition company in a deal worth an estimated $3.3 billion. Self-driving truck maker TuSimple raised $1 billion through an initial public offering (IPO) in March. Autonomous vehicle software developer Aurora filed for an IPO last week. And Waymo, which is pursuing driverless truck technology through its Waymo Via business line, has raised billions of dollars to date at a valuation of just over $30 billion.

Other competitors in the self-driving truck space include Wilson Logistics and Pony.ai. But Kodiak points to a minority investment from Bridgestone to test and develop smart tire technology as one of its key differentiators. BMW i Ventures is another backer, along with South Korean conglomerate SK, which is exploring the possibility of deploying Kodiak’s vehicle technology in Asia.

Kodiak

“Kodiak was founded in April 2018 and took delivery of its first truck in late 2018. We completed our first closed-course test drive just three weeks later, and began autonomously moving freight for [12] customers between Dallas and Houston in the summer of 2019,” Burnette said. “Our team is the most capital-efficient of the autonomous driving companies while also having developed industry leading technology. We plan to achieve driverless operations at scale for less than 10% of what Waymo has publicly raised to date, and less than 25% of what TuSimple has raised to date.”

Eight-five-employee Kodiak recently said that it plans to expand freight-carrying pilots to San Antonio and other cities in Texas. The company is also testing trucks in Mountain View, California, with a headcount that now stands at 85 people.

In the next few months, Kodiak plans to add 15 new trucks to its fleet, for a total of 25.

“We are at a pivotal moment in the autonomous vehicle industry. It’s not a question of will autonomous trucking technology happen — it’s when is it going to happen,” Burnette continued. “That being said, logistics is an $800 billion-per-year industry with a lot of room for many players to be successful.

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