Startup freight broker Loadsmith plans to buy 800 autonomous driving systems from Kodiak Robotics by the second half of 2025. Its goal is to offer third-party capacity-as-a-service using only driverless trucks for moving freight on interstates between hubs.
Planning between Loadsmith, Kodiak, trailer manufacturer Wabash and Mastery Logistics over the next 24 months provides a glimpse of what autonomous trucking on U.S. highways could look like.
The intent is to evolve rather than disrupt the freight business.
“It will be very close to a four-way partnership with Loadsmith organizing all those things,” Loadsmith CEO Brett Suma told FreightWaves. “[The Kodiak] team has a tremendous amount of work ahead of them. We have a tremendous amount of work on our side. Mastery is building a new business, and Wabash Trailers-as-a-Service is a new product offering.”
Human drivers will handle first- and last-mile freight deliveries, more than offsetting jobs lost to autonomy.
Kodiak poised to lead autonomous commercialization
The Loadsmith contract with Kodiak — no terms were disclosed — propels the privately held Mountain View, California-based software developer to a leadership role in commercializing driverless trucks. The initial focus will be on southwestern states where climate and other factors make it easier to train robot drivers.
“I am 100% confident that by the second half of 2025, we will have a fully validated, redundant, driverless-capable platform available,” Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told FreightWaves.
Rivals Aurora Innovation and TuSimple target limited commercial routes in Texas and Arizona, respectively, by late 2024. Neither has announced how many autonomous trucks they will deploy. Aurora announced a supply agreement in April with Continental AG to manufacture its automotive-grade autonomous hardware.
Kodiak does not have such an agreement but works with tier 1 suppliers like Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems and ZF, Burnette said.
“We build the compute stack and sensor stack to be as hardened as possible given the suppliers and sensors that are available on the market today,” he said.
Loadsmith eyes future of freight hauling
Loadsmith is a private 3-year-old startup led by Suma, who spent almost two decades as vice president of operations at Knight Transportation. He left Knight a year after the September 2017 merger with Swift Transportation that created Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc. Suma founded Loadsmith and became CEO in January 2019.
TuSimple was Loadsmith’s original autonomous trucking partner. Locksmith had reserved 350 driverless trucks that could operate on TuSimple’s autonomous freight network (AFN). The AFN gets little attention today. TuSimple laid off 650 employees — more than half its workforce — in December and May.
TuSimple recently has pivoted to promoting its China-based Asian operations it had planned to sell or spin off.
“We had a great partnership with them, particularly with Lee White and with Bob Kill,” Suma said. “With Lee and Bob’s departures, it just didn’t seem like the right place for Loadsmith any longer.”
Around the same time, former USA Truck CEO James Reed joined Kodiak as chief operating officer.
“James coming on board was really inspiring to me to want to work with Kodiak,” Suma said. “When you bring in a guy of James’ acumen, you’ve got to be thinking about commercialization. You’re moving past the credibility of the technology and into the ‘How do we commercialize this?’”
Trailers and TMS critical to autonomous network
Suma sees how. Loadsmith in November signed a multiyear trailers-as-a-service contract with Wabash to purchase 6,000 dry vans for use in trailer pools.
Mastery Logistics is developing its cloud-based MasterMind transportation management system for the Loadsmith Freight Network — a series of dense freight routes Loadsmith is building where running autonomous trucks makes financial sense.
“Our business had always been launched based on the concept of an intelligently designed network,” Suma said. “If you were to really dig into my past, you would understand why I’m such a believer in how network design will lead to consistency, efficiency, optimization, and ultimately, profitability.”
Doing the math
Because autonomous trucks can run practically around the clock, Suma counts on 2.5 times greater utilization than with a human-driven truck. With 6,000 trailers at a 3-to-1 trailer-to-tractor ratio, Loadsmith would need 2,000 human-driven trucks. With Kodiak Driver-equipped trucks, it’s just 800.
Loadsmith has ordered 6,000 dry vans from Wabash that will be part of an autonomous freight network. (Photo: Loadsmith)
“We’ll run our trailers just like we’ll run the Kodiak Driver, back and forth between two OD [operational domain] pairings,” Suma said. “As we scale, we believe that our trailer deployment schedule and our Kodiak truck deployment schedule will be operating 800 Kodiak Drivers or more by the end of the decade, depending on traction in the marketplace.”
The driverless trucks will wear out faster than a typical truck.
“Eight hundred really doesn’t even start calculating in the fact that I’m going to be calling Don and saying, ‘Hey, my first group is going out of service. I need to double up.’ That 800 number is undoubtedly going to expand,” Suma said.
Loadsmith has $125 million of freight under management today with 65 full-time employees. Suma said 2022 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization was $5 million. The only capital to date is money from Suma’s family.
Familiar pricing model
Look for the autonomous business to follow the pay-per-mile system in place today.
“The per-mile or per-route fee is what makes sense,” Burnette said. “I think that the current system where shippers pay carriers [and] carriers pay drivers is a model we should base our system on, and that’s what we plan to do.”
Expect a slow start.
“It will be somewhat of a hockey stick curve,” Suma said. “When you start really diving into what Loadsmith’s plans are with our customers from a modular pricing algorithm perspective, that will allow us to provide customers three-year or five-year contracts on their freight with incremental inflation-based increases.”
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