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Driverless trucks – AI makes it possible

Fahrerlose LKW

At the MTM SUMMIT 2023, the meeting of the MTM community on October 18 and 19 in Hamburg and online, Michael Wiesinger, Vice President of Commercialization, Kodiak Robotics, Mountain View, USA, will present the latest developments in autonomous driving. Artificial intelligence plays a key role here. We spoke with Michael Wiesinger in advance about his passion for future technologies. 

Michael, what brought you to Silicon Valley, California 5 years ago?

“At the time, I was working for the Boston Consulting Group in the automotive sector and at that time I met my current wife, who was studying in Vienna. She grew up in Silicon Valley. After careful consideration of where we would like to live as a couple in the future and in line with my professional desire to move from consulting to the mobility area of a start-up, we ultimately decided on the epicenter of the mobility industry: Silicon Valley. My choice then fell on Kodiak Robotics. At this company, I felt that the best talent was there and that I could make a difference.”

What exactly does the start-up deal with?

“We develop technology for driverless trucks. That means we are responsible for seamlessly integrating the sensors into the trucks and providing the necessary software, as well as Remote Monitoring Tools, such as kodiakOnTime: Among other things, it monitors the trucks operated by Kodiak remotely and regulates the routing to the pick-up and drop-off points. We also take care of providing the appropriate infrastructure e.g., to carry out inspections of the trucks. In addition, we carry out test drives, which on public roads are currently still accompanied by a safety driver so that we can intervene in an emergency. On closed test tracks, on the other hand, we are already driving fully autonomously.”

Michael, what level in terms of autonomous driving are you at right now?

“There are a total of five levels that the industry has defined and that describe the transition from assisted to driverless driving. We are developing a Level 4 System. Level 4 means that our trucks will be fully autonomous and driverless within a certain area, e.g., the Interstate Network in the USA. This means we are driving autonomously within a certain range, with our routes limited to certain types of roads or weather conditions. Level 5 implies that these restrictions would be removed and the technology could be used anywhere in the world at any time. However, at this point, there is a serious question as to whether and when level 5 can be reached.

On public roads, our trucks are currently operated in Level 2 mode. This means that for the most part and more than 95% of the time, the truck acts autonomously, but the driver has his hands close to the steering wheel and can intervene at any time. Every 100 milliseconds, a so-called health check is carried out to check, among other things, whether the tires have the right pressure or the engine is at the right temperature. If there are problems at any point, control currently goes back to the driver, in line with the principle of a driver assistance system.”

What steps are required for the trucks to be officially approved for road use?

“In the U.S., you can talk about a kind of self-certification. Basically, you just need to be able to follow all the rules of the road. So from a legal point of view, Kodiak could currently send its trucks on the road without drivers in more than 20 states. But our claim is that we are safer than a human driver. To be able to clarify this in advance, we collect data from miles driven and simulations, and additionally look at the truck’s reactions in test scenarios. All this data is then used to create a risk analysis at the end. We’re not done with that yet.”

Michael, what specific benefits does the use of driverless trucks offer companies, both economically and demographically?

“Demographically, there is a huge shortage of drivers in the US. The main reason is that there are often long distances to travel, which means drivers are away from home for a long time. Many young people no longer want this. On the other hand, the population is growing, and the volume of transport is increasing. The trend is toward online ordering, with customers expecting their delivery within a day or two. There is thus an ever-increasing discrepancy between demand and the number of drivers available as well as transport capacity. We want to counteract this development with our autonomous trucks.

The economic aspect can be illustrated using a freight forwarder with 1,000 trucks: Normally, a truck drives on average only 7 hours a day, so that the full transport volume cannot be utilized. The driverless truck knows no restrictions in this respect and is ready for action up to 24 hours a day; it needs no breaks. Exceptions to this are refueling and inspections. Autonomous trucks are also more reliable and on call than human drivers because they don’t get sick. So, by and large, we can make freight transport cheaper, faster, and more efficient again. Also, accidents on the roads are 90% caused by human behavior. Safety is one of the most important factors in choosing an autonomous truck!

On the topic of the environment and sustainability, I would also like to say that autonomous trucks drive extremely consistently and do not make irrational decisions regarding speed or breaking behavior. Basically, inefficient miles can be avoided because autonomous trucks also drive exactly the routes they are given.”

When do you think the vision could become reality? 

“Basically, it’s up to us: We’ll decide when we’re ready for the road! Internal company goals have been set, but not published. But it will happen in the next few years … The important thing is that, as a start-up with limited resources, we stay focused, and we will only start on a certain track.”

Why are you appearing at the MTM SUMMIT 2023 and why should attendees not miss your presentation? 

 “My personal interest is to introduce people in Europe to autonomous driving, which has already become an everyday topic for us in Silicon Valley in the USA. In Europe, on the other hand, the legal situation is not yet as advanced, and the topic still seems to be in the distant future. 

I would like to illustrate to the participants of the MTM SUMMIT 2023 how fast technology is really advancing and what benefits it holds for companies.  I’m looking forward to the discussion that will follow, as it will give room for interaction with someone who deals with the topic on a daily basis!

For me, the best thing that can happen is for logistics professionals in their company to ask themselves the question: How do we actually think about the transportation of the future?”