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Self-driving trucks startup Kodiak Robotics snags investment, partnership from Bridgestone

Tire-making giant Bridgestone has taken a minority stake in Kodiak Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based startup developing autonomous trucks, as part of a broader partnership to test and develop smart tire technology.

While the terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, Kodiak Robotics co-founder and CEO Don Burnette told TechCrunch that this is a direct financial investment. Bridgestone CTO Nizar Trigui has also joined the Kodiak board as an observer.

The deal involves more than capital. The two companies have also formed a strategic partnership focused on advancing Bridgestone’s tire tech and fleet management system. Kodiak will use Bridgestone’s sensor-laden tires and fleet management system on its self-driving trucks, which are used to carry freight between Dallas and Houston as part of its testing program. The company recently said it is expanding its freight carrying pilots to San Antonio. Kodiak also tests its self-driving trucks — always with a safety operator behind the wheel — in and around Mountain View, California.

Semi-trucks travel 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year, Burnette said, adding that tire integrity and tire monitoring are integral to the safety of trucking, whether they’re driven by a human or computer.

“Safety of an autonomy system ultimately comes down to our ability to manipulate the tires that touch the road when you are accelerating or braking or steering,” Burnette said. “You need to be able to rely on your tires to actually perform the way they are expected to perform otherwise your safety envelope is not necessarily guaranteed.”

Kodiak will use these smart tires to monitor pressure, temperature and even measure the loads on the wheels, which plays a role in vehicle dynamics and maneuverability. Kodiak will share the data it collects with Bridgestone, which the company can use to improve the chemistry of its tires.

Tire companies like Bridgestone already collect basic information from telematics providers that helps determine where trucks are driven, what types of roads they use as well as tire pressure and temperature. Predictive models are then developed based on that data.  Autonomous vehicle companies bring an added value to tire companies, Burnette noted. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks are loaded with sensors of their own, which allows the company to collect massive amounts of driving data that can help Bridgestone understand exactly how its tires are being used.

“Autonomy providers like Kodiak have all of the raw data specifically on how the trucks are being driven,” he said. “We know what the forces are, we know what the steering is, we know what the braking pressures that were being commanded in real time. And so we can gather a wealth of data that has never been previously possible to collect for companies like Bridgestone.”

This allows Bridgestone to build predictive models that will more accurately be able to predict the eventual lifetime and also possibly give warnings to when tires may fail out of field. “And that’s ultimately what Kodiak  is really interested in,” Burnette added.

The news follows Kodiak’s announcement in May that it was partnering with South Korean conglomerate SK to explore the possibility of deploying its autonomous vehicle technology in Asia. The ultimate aim of the SK partnership is to sell and distribute Kodiak’s self-driving technology in the region. Kodiak will examine how it can use SK’s products, components and technology for its autonomous system, including artificial intelligence microprocessors and advanced emergency braking systems. Both companies have also agreed to work together to provide fleet management services for customers in Asia.

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