Kodiak Robotics believes it has achieved a self-driving milestone. In mid-December, the autonomous truck startup conducted a disengagement-free test drive between Dallas and Houston, amounting to 205 miles of operation without human intervention.
Within a matter of days, the company did it again. And again.
One day, Kodiak's big rigs completed two similar round trips between the two cities on Interstate 45 without a single disengagement from the self-driving system, achieving 829 consecutive miles under autonomous-only control.
In one week, the company's trucks completed eight disengagement-free runs.
Human safety drivers were aboard at all times -- they won't go the way of the lonely Maytag repairman anytime soon -- but the uneventful rides provide an important benchmark for the industry at a time when increased goods demand has piqued interest in self-driving trucks.
"There's still a lot of work needed to get to driverless, we all know that," Andreas Wendel, vice president of engineering at Kodiak Robotics, told Automotive News. "But it shows our nominal performance is now very good despite not really having focused only on that nominal."
The spate of disengagement-free deliveries included drives during the day and at night and amid traffic and construction zones. The mileage was logged from on-ramps to off-ramps along the interstate. Kodiak's deployment strategy involves autonomous trucks handling highway driving while humans will still be needed to pilot big rigs in more complicated operational environments such as arterial roads and surface streets.
The company further detailed its efforts Monday during the virtual CES, organizers of which bestowed an Innovation Award upon Kodiak last month.
Whether the approximate 800 miles is a high mark for the industry remains unclear. Kodiak believes so. No other self-driving trucking companies have made public remarks suggesting such a benchmark.
A spokesman for TuSimple, a competitor, said the company has logged more than 2 million overall test miles but declined to share disengagement figures.
California requires self-driving companies to disclose information annually regarding disengagements during their AV testing. But Texas and Arizona, where much of the self-driving trucking industry tests tractor-trailers, have no such requirements.
On the trucking side of the autonomy business, disengagement rates remain unknown. Broadly, industry experts consider disengagement metrics more of a snapshot glance at a given company's activities and not a definitive measure of a self-driving system's competence.
Yet by releasing the 800-mile disengagement-free figure — and the footage that backs it up — Kodiak hopes to push its competitors to be more forthcoming with information that provides a better overall barometer of autonomous trucking progress.
"I don't think others have done what we have done; I don't think they have that," Wendel said. "But if they do, that's actually a good thing for the autonomous driving industry. If they'd show it, it'd give the public a much better state of where companies are. It is very opaque at the moment."
Kodiak was founded in April 2018. It has received $40 million in venture capital funding to date, which puts it in an underdog position compared with deeper-funded competitors. Other trucking startups have either shuttered (Starsky Robotics) or been acquired by nontrucking companies (Ike).
TuSimple has received $648.1 million in funding, according to Crunchbase records, while investors have poured $200 million into Plus.ai and $117.1 million into Embark Trucks.
Kodiak laid off 20 percent of its staff in April, citing the outset of the pandemic as the cause.
Simulation has played a prominent role in preparing Kodiak's system for the breadth of scenarios it would experience in real-world highway driving, which have ranged from regular runs through ever-changing construction zones to emergency vehicles parked on the shoulder of the highway to one harrowing case in which a construction worker stepped in front of the moving truck.
The company's trucks have tested along Interstate 45 since December 2018. In the weeks and months leading into December 2020, Wendel says, there was not necessarily a gradual build toward the disengagement-free rides. It was more a case of getting a few key puzzle pieces to fall into place. Then disengagements dipped to perhaps one a ride. Then on a mid-December Friday, none.
"The message came in that it had happened, and it was a surprise," said Wendel, who joined Kodiak from Waymo in May 2018. "And then the week after, it happened again and then again. Then it was four in the one day. That was super, super inspiring."