Autonomous Trucks are one Step Closer to Hitting the Road, Thanks to These Cleverly Designed Sensors

By Jesus Diaz, Fast Company

When Don Burnette founded Kodiak in 2018, an old trucking idiom was on repeat in his mind: “If the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.” That mantra fueled Burnette as he set out to find potential partners when building his autonomous-trucking company. He and his team wanted to design a commercial-ready product from the start, and not waste time with science experiments.

“We worked closely with our partners to understand their requirements and how they run their fleets,” he says. “One message that really stood out to me was that in trucking, every minute a truck is down matters.” That remit became the driving force behind Kodiak’s SensorPod, which won a 2023 Innovation by Design Award in the Automotive category.

Kodiak’s latest generation of SensorPods replace a truck’s stock side-view mirrors with a tidy package of all the sensors an autonomous vehicle requires to understand the world around it. The SensorPods are pre-calibrated and pre-built, and connect to the company’s Kodiak Driver system like Lego bricks.

Each unit houses all the necessary autonomous vehicle sensors, including one Hesai LiDAR (laser scanners that can see far away across any weather conditions), two ZF Full-Range 4D radars (which is designed to detect the orientation, distance, speed, and height of objects around the truck), and three optical cameras.

Burnette says a big part of designing a robust and easy-to-maintain autonomous-driving system was figuring out how to service the sensors while out on the road when a specialized engineer would likely not be readily available. Kodiak designed the SensorPods to be modular; mechanics can swap them out without any specialized training or equipment, allowing for easy and fast service at any time and any location, even out on the open road.

Kodiak plans to launch its first fully autonomous truck in 2024 and to incorporate its technology into third-party fleets by 2025. Burnette believes that by the end of this decade, autonomous trucks will be commonplace on American highways, carrying freight safely and efficiently without a driver.

That doesn’t mean the immediate end for truckers. Burnette says the company is planning to leave the difficult work of local driving to trained, experienced humans. Kodiak’s objective is to improve the technology for long-haul routes. He believes that it still could be decades before you see driverless trucks backing up to your local grocery store. But with the global trucking industry grappling with increasing driver shortages and safety concerns, the idea of having reliable, automated, and safe long-haul road transportation seems like an appealing one for everyone, including the truckers themselves.

This story is part of Fast Company’s 2023 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world. Read more about the methodology behind the selection process.

The Road Ahead for Autonomous Vehicles: Aurora CEO Chris Urmson on the Future of Cars and Trucks

By Todd Bishop, GeekWire

Fully autonomous vehicles are closer to commonplace than you might expect, as cars and big rigs gain the ability to operate safely on our streets and highways.

As one of the pioneers in the field, Chris Urmson has been there almost from the beginning, competing in the landmark DARPA Grand Challenge before leading Google’s self-driving car initiative. Now he’s following through on the vision as CEO of Aurora, which is developing self-driving technology for car and truck makers.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we’re playing highlights from our conversation with Urmson at the recent GeekWire Summit.

Listen below, or subscribe in any podcast app, and keep reading for excerpts. 

Aurora’s approach: We founded Aurora about six years ago with the mission to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly and broadly. We’re building the driver technology. We don’t want to build trucks or cars. There’s people who do that really well. We don’t want to build Uber or FedEx or any of the carriers. We want to build the driving technology to power those businesses.

Underlying technology: The driver we’ve built uses a combination of sensors: LIDAR, radar, cameras, our special high-definition maps. We’ve got our proprietary FirstLight LIDAR, which allows us to see further than others can. And we have a lot of computing onboard. It’s this common architecture, common hardware and software that runs everything from the Toyota Sienna through vehicles from PACCAR and Volvo.

Current state of operations: Today we have trucks on the road in Texas pulling loads for customers every day, with people on board, with operators on board. … The vast majority of the time, it’s driving itself. And it’s doing this on the freeway. And it is a very smooth, capable driver at this point. It does the things that you’d want other drivers to do. So if it sees vehicles trying to merge … it will make space and move over. When it sees a vehicle stuck on the side of the road, it’ll slow down, it’ll make space, and do all the things that a good conscientious driver would do.

Why start with big rigs? For a bunch of reasons:

  • There’s just an incredible need for this technology in the U.S. We’re short 80,000 drivers today; we expect to be short 160,000 drivers by the end of the decade. It is one of the contributing factors to the supply chain challenge.
  • Safety is profoundly important. There are about a half-million heavy truck accidents per year. That’s something we can do something about.
  • As a business, the economic opportunity is even better. Trucking today in the U.S. is about a $700 billion industry; ride-hailing is about a $35 billion industry. And so from an addressable market, it’s profound.
  • When we look at the opportunity to build the business and scale it, unit economics are stronger. Said simply, we pay truck drivers three times as much as we pay ride-hailing drivers. And so if you think about introducing a technology, that makes it easier to start to scale the business and then move into other spaces.
  • Finally, from a technology point of view, we expect to be able to scale more rapidly. If you think about what a mile of freeway in Texas looks like, versus a mile of freeway in Minnesota, versus a mile of freeway in California, they’re all basically the same. Whereas, with an intersection in San Francisco, you go five blocks away, and it’s different people, different behavior, different geometry.

What do you say to people who are concerned about safety? First, this is a new technology. It is very rational and reasonable to have concerns and questions and really want to understand it better. That’s perfectly normal and healthy.

Safety is core to the DNA of the company. It’s why we’re as transparent as we are about how we do safety at the company. We’ve shared our framework for how we’re going to convince ourselves and others that the vehicle is safe.

The technology is magical in some ways. It can look in all directions at once. And it doesn’t have the human response of foveation that happens. … There’s an incredible opportunity here for safety.

If you had the option to drive I-5 from the Bay Area to Seattle yourself or have the Aurora Driver drive, which would you choose, safety-wise?

We’re not quite there yet with the Aurora Driver. But we are making really good progress. There’s a lot of the time where I would certainly trust it. Where we’re at with the Aurora Driver is driving up reliability … but we haven’t quite finished yet. If we had, we would be operating without drivers today.

What’s next: We are working to be feature complete at the end of Q1. At that point, the Aurora Driver does everything it’ll need to be part of a product out in the world. But it doesn’t yet do it quite well enough. We’re working towards the end of next year to be ready.

Nuro’s Summer of STEM — Inspiring the Workforce of the Future

By Nuro Team, Medium

Every summer, millions of students spend their days in a variety of activities and camps. This is a great opportunity for students of all backgrounds to get exposed to and inspired by new concepts, new environments, and new technologies. This year, Nuro launched “Summer of STEM” — an initiative focused on supporting education programs that deliver effective Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) engagement and education opportunities to learners of all ages and backgrounds.

Nuro employees volunteered hundreds of hours with over 600 students participating — learning about Nuro’s autonomous vehicles, the technology behind our neighborhood delivery services, and the current and future career opportunities at companies like Nuro.

Below, we highlight some of the wonderful programs, with links to learn more. Nuro welcomes inquiries for tours, speakers, or other opportunities to share this innovative technology with students in local communities — contact us at [email protected] for more information.

Wilcox High School (Santa Clara, CA) and Wender Weis Foundation Tour with De Anza College

Nuro partnered with the Wender Weis Foundation for Children to host a tour of our Proto-Manufacturing Facilities Facility in Santa Clara for automotive technology students at nearby Wilcox High School. The students got an inside view of the vehicle building process and maintenance of our autonomous fleet, talked with Nuro employees about their roles, and learned about Nuro’s Autonomous, Electric Vehicle Technician Pathway Program with De Anza College — featuring a College-level seminar on automotive technology.

Hydra Hacks hackathon and workshops

Hydra Hacks is “the West Coast’s largest hackathon for marginalized genders.” This year’s hackathon involved a combination of coding/programming workshops and a hackathon competition with over 200 high school and college participants. Sponsored by Nuro, and led by Nuro’s employee resource group (ERG), Women of Nuro, employees volunteered as mentors and judges.

Houston TechConnect Summer Series

The TechConnect Initiative, organized by Houston City Council Member Karla Cisneros, brings STEM activities to underserved youth at park community centers in District H. Nuro showcased our autonomous vehicles and sponsored lunch for the participating students. Nuro was able to speak with youth participants on the importance of studying STEM fields.

Hidden Genius Career Career Exploration

The Hidden Genius Project, with programs in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Detroit, “trains and mentors Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities.”

As part of their Business Trip series, students from the Hidden Genius Project Intensive Immersion Program visited Nuro HQ to learn about computer science applications and entrepreneurship. In addition to a tour of the office, demonstration of the autonomous technology, and talk from Nuro CTO Andrew Clare, the Geniuses heard from a panel of current Nuro employees who are members of the Black @ Nuro ERG group about their career path and experience.

Mineta Summer Transportation Institute

The Mineta Summer Transportation Institute is a program for Bay Area high school students to learn about transportation careers on-campus at San Jose State University. Nuro provided an inside look into our technology and business with a lecture and demonstration of the R2 autonomous vehicle. Students were then assigned a presentation topic related to a potential launch of Nuro neighborhood delivery services in San Jose. They had to consider, who should we partner with, what could be delivered, and how we can let the community know about this technology.

Bay Area STEM Festival and Technology Showcase

Throughout the year, Nuro participates in a variety of community events in our operating regions. This summer, two Bay Area block party events focused on technology being developed in the region: the Apricot STEM Festival organized by the Los Altos History Museum and Technology Showcase by the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. Youth and community members saw Nuro vehicles and talked to Nuro staff about the autonomous testing and delivery services happening in their neighborhoods. A few school robotics teams even provided demonstrations of their own ‘basketball shooting’ robots built for national FIRST Robotics Competitions.

Self-eSTEM mentoring and summer camp

Based in Oakland, CA, Self-eSTEM “builds the self-esteem of girls and young women from untapped communities, while providing interactive, culturally responsive STEM literacy, leadership, and technical training to leverage STEM as a foundation for social and economic growth.”

This summer, Nuro team members volunteered at Self-eSTEM’s Summer Exploration Camp in Oakland and attended their “Conversations in STEM” panel event to share stories of how they apply STEM education to their work at Nuro. We will host the students for a tour of Nuro HQ and lunch with the Women of Nuro ERG this winter.

Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action Green Careers Bus Tour

Prior to schools starting, the student-led Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action group organized a “Green Careers Bus Tour” of local companies focused on sustainability. Nuro was honored to be included in the group’s events; providing a tour of our offices, sharing best interview practices by our recruiting team, and presentation by Greenwork, a Nuro partner, ​​using their technology platform to connect skilled labor with jobs in green construction and manufacturing industries.

Bay Area Robotics Teams

Some students are already well on their way to careers in STEM, leading some of the top High School robotics teams in the country. Throughout the year, Nuro hosts these students to see and interact with our (slightly larger) robots, and learn about the similar technologies powering our autonomous systems. This summer, students from Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Fremont, Los Gatos, San Jose, and other nearby cities visited the Nuro HQ for demos, pizza night, and exciting discussions on the future of robotics

Werner Wants to ‘Stay at the Forefront’ of Autonomous Tech

By David Taube, TransportDive

Werner Enterprises’s partnerships with autonomous trucks are spanning perhaps as far as the vehicle tests are operating.

The carrier has connected with several startups, such as Aurora Innovation, Embark and Kodiak Robotics, in a bid to see which companies will produce results, executives told Transport Dive in an interview Oct. 4.

“Autonomous is one of the areas where we like to stay at the forefront to understand what’s coming at us,” Werner Senior Vice President of Van/Expedited Chad Dittberner said. “We’re working with many different companies in the autonomous space to understand how they’re all progressing.”

Executives with the transportation and logistics provider said not every tech company is going to reach the results they’re pursuing, but partnerships allow Werner to evaluate how the driverless features progress.

“It’s really hard to pick the winners and losers. At this point it’s pretty early,” Werner Chief Commercial Officer Craig Callahan said. “We want to be in a position to be towards the front of the line in the event that … there’s a really fruitful byproduct that comes from this.”

Dittberner said they don’t know when production will become a reality, but there’s not a requirement to reach that point at a certain date.

Instead, the company is lending its support and perspective as the process moves along. “It also allows us a seat at the table to be able to provide guidance and direction to these companies that are trying to shape the future of our industry,” Callahan added.

The goal of the technology is to ultimately remove drivers from the seat, but Werner still views drivers as fundamental to its business. The technology could pave the way for more safety upgrades and transform longhaul trucking in the future, Callahan said.

While tech companies race to commercialize the technology, that transformation could still be years away.

“When is the end? We don’t know that answer. We believe it’s years away,” Dittberner said. “But what we do know is a lot of the safety features that our drivers have on our new equipment today have come from this autonomous quest.”