Kodiak is already operating trucks with a safety driver on board on routes between Dallas and six cities, including Atlanta. In a couple of years, Kodiak expects to take that safety driver out of the cab and operate completely autonomous large freight trucks. A slew of other startups are also chasing the driverless dream.
Embark Technology Inc., Aurora Innovation Inc., TuSimple Holdings Inc. and others are all testing autonomous truck technology on the highway. Aurora has said it expects to operate without a driver on board as early as next year. Aurora and Embark went public through special purpose acquisition companies while TuSimple did a tradition initial public offering. All three have performed small and are down more than 75 percent since first trading.
Kodiak, which has investors including tiremaker Bridgestone Corp. and BMW’s venture fund, is teaming up with Pilot to create an autonomous truckport in Atlanta that would offer services like fueling, inspections and maintenance for Kodiak’s driverless trucks. Pilot’s truck stops would also serve as a meeting point outside large urban areas where a driverless truck would drop off a trailer that would be picked up by a truck with a driver to navigate city traffic.
The driverless truck companies all contend their technology will make big rigs much safer for US highways. It’s a low bar considering that 159,000 people were injured in crashes involving large trucks in 2019, and 5,600 were killed in such accidents in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The market need is also there.
The American Trucking Association estimates the US is short 80,000 truck drivers, and the shortage is concentrated in long-haul trucking that keeps drivers away from their home for days and even weeks. Those long hauls are the low-hanging fruit for autonomous trucks to pick.
If one of Buffett’s companies is taking the plunge into this new technology, don’t be surprised that in a decade or two driverless trucks will also be a mainstay of the US economy.