Forward Air, Kodiak Partner on Autonomous Route

By Connor D. Wolf, Transport Topics

Forward Air Corp. has partnered with self-driving trucking company Kodiak Robotics to run one of their busiest freight lanes near continuously with an autonomous truck, the company announced March 16.

Kodiak is hauling freight nonstop, as part of the partnership, six days a week between Dallas and Atlanta. The purpose of their agreement is to not only transport real freight but also for both companies to gain insights for the future development of autonomous technologies.

“They’ve been a really great partner to work with,” Kodiak CEO Don Burnette said. “Obviously, they do a lot of expedited freight and so this type of highly efficient, highly resilient, continuous operation is really valuable to a company like Forward. And so, it really was a no-brainer that this is the type of company that Kodiak would love to work with. And so far, it’s been a very successful relationship.”

Burnette noted that autonomous technology can increase asset utilization above the standard truck driving hours since it can run all day. The partnership will help put that to the test by running the truck all but one day a week along a lane that stretches about 800 miles. A safety driver team is overseeing the autonomous system in order to maintain the schedule while abiding by hours-of-service regulations.

“To serve our customers, we always need to be on the forefront of exploring emerging technologies,” Forward CEO Tom Schmitt said. “Kodiak has earned an outstanding reputation in safe autonomous trucking, and this collaboration allows us to explore potential benefits to our business. While we don’t see autonomous trucks replacing independent contractor capacity, this could potentially be a scalable solution for certain lanes in our network.”

Kodiak has already launched partnerships with several other carriers to haul real freight. But the new partnership, focused on expedited freight along a difficult corridor, provides new opportunities to improve efficiency and reliability. The company also sees it as an opening to illustrate how autonomous trucking can be an efficient way to supplement human-driven fleets.

“Not all carriers, not all private fleets, are the same,” Burnette said. “They don’t operate in the same way. They don’t have the same schedules, they don’t use the same transportation management systems. And so, we want to make sure that we’re working with companies like Forward early on in our development cycle so we can customize and tailor the solution to their needs and understand what challenges they’re facing.”

Burnette added the partnership will help both companies dive deep into these technologies and operations to better explore their capabilities and limitations. He noted that will help them to optimize business operations for an autonomous world.

“That’s not always obvious on the outset,” Burnette said. “You need to really get into the nitty-gritty details. And that’s why having this 24-6 continuous operation contract is so important, because it gives us a realistic, real-life view into the needs and demands of Forward. A lot of AV companies have been doing one-off pilots or short-term programs or a once-a-week operation, and it just doesn’t really give you enough insight into the true inner workings of a company like Forward and moving expedited freight.”

Kodiak and Forward decided on the route after a lane analysis covering the United States. That analysis looked at factors such as what lanes currently are being run round trip, the volume of freight being hauled and hours of service.

“We wanted to demonstrate the resiliency and the reliability of our system running across a challenging multi-hour-of-service freight corridor,” Burnette said. “And it just so happened that Dallas to Atlanta is one of the busiest corridors in the United States from a freight capacity perspective, and it was one that Forward runs regularly with freight in both directions.”

Kodiak began hauling freight on the lane in August. The first step after selecting the lane was to work out the kinks so those operations were being done responsibly and safely. Kodiak hauled more than a hundred loads on the lane during that process.

“That’s over a hundred thousand miles since we began working with them,” Burnette said. “We started talking to them before that. The relationship was building earlier in 2022 and then we went through the exercises to determine what route, how often, what was the frequency, what were all the details and we started moving freight in August.

“So, there was a bit of work that went into the relationship ahead of time, but so far, it’s been a fantastic experience working with them over the last six months.”