How’s this for a bit of irony—a company that runs trucks that can operate hands-free, striking a deal to deliver goods for a global retailer that sells furniture customers have to build with their own hands?
Once a day, seven days a week, an unusual truck delivers furniture from an IKEA distribution center in Baytown, Texas near Houston to an IKEA retail store almost 300 miles away in Frisco, north of Dallas. What’s unusual is the truck runs autonomously over the highway miles of the trip with technology developed by Kodiak Robotics Inc.
The single daily runs started in August but the companies are only now making them public after a period of evaluation.
“The main purpose of this is for IKEA is to get a better understanding how Kodiak’s autonomous driving technology can contribute to increased road safety but also to improve the quality of life for drivers and also the modalities for which they move their freight,” said Kodiak founder and CEO Don Burnette in an interview with Forbes.com.
It’s all part of what began as a three-month pilot program, but Burnette said the intention is for his company to enter a long-term multi-year relationship with the Swedish furniture giant with the possibility of growing the number of runs and locations.
For IKEA, the Kodiak connection is a step towards reaching some of its environmental and society goals.
“We are proud to be working with Kodiak to achieve our ambitious goals of being at the forefront of innovation and building capabilities for future transportation,” says Dariusz Mroczek, Category Area Transport Manager, IKEA Supply Chain Operations in a statement. “Kodiak’s technology will contribute towards our objective to put the driver in focus in the transition towards automated transportation and towards our road safety agenda.”
Burnette points out when Kodiak trucks run autonomously the Mountain View, Calif.-based company is seeing a 10% fuel economy savings versus the times the trucks are driven manually.
For the fast-growing company, landing the deal with IKEA isn’t just a big score, it represents entry into a new phase of its operation.
“Up until now we’ve primarily been working with other carriers who work on behalf of shippers as their customers and this is the first time we’re working with a shipper directly,” said Burnette. “It was a really good opportunity to build that relationship and understand their operational needs.”
Founded in 2018, Kodiak is steadily expanding its coverage area, mainly in the U.S. Southeast. Since mid-2019 Kodiak has been delivering freight between Dallas, Texas and Houston and between Dallas and San Antonio since 2021.
Last March CEVA Logistics announced it partnered with Kodiak to deliver freight autonomously to Austin, Texas and Oklahoma City from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In April Kodiak announced a deal with U.S. Xpress for autonomous freight deliveries from Dallas-Fort Worth to Atlanta, Ga.
Just this past August Kodiak and the nation’s largest travel center operator Pilot Companies announced a “strategic agreement” to develop services for self-driving trucks at Pilot and Flying J travel centers. The first such truckport to be built at a Pilot center near Atlanta.
Right now Kodiak’s fleet consists of about 26 trucks—some on the road, others either in development or build phases, according to Burnette. He had no estimate as to the number of drivers the company employs, but finding the right ones to climb in the cab can be tough, even though many of the miles will be basically hands-off.
“Hiring drivers is challenging for everyone including us. We have a very high standard. It’s challenging finding drivers who want to drive long distances over the road in particular and that’s specifically the market we’re trying to address,” said Burnett. “The folks who come to work at Kodiak come here because they want to be part of a foundational change.”
All of Kodiak’s trucks are powered by internal combustion engines but Burnette says the company is very open to moving to electrified rigs should manufacturers make them available. He points out the transition would not be an issue since the Kodiak Driver autonomous system is “powertrain agnostic.”
“Our system could work with an electric powertrain, could work with a hydrogen powertrain we just don’t have access to those technologies yet but they’re coming soon and we’ll definitely be looking to announce that in the future,” Burnette said.
But right now, Burnette says Kodiak is focused on building on its budding relationship with IKEA while maintaining its role in promoting self-driving commercial transport, and growing.
“We are not looking to become a carrier,” said Burnette. “We look forward to working with their partner carriers in the future. This is a learning experience for both sides.”