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Waabi’s Robot Trucks Move From The Virtual World To Uber Freight’s Network

Self-driving tech startup Waabi put a small fleet of autonomous semis into service on Uber Freight’s trucking network, the first revenue-generating business for the Canadian company that thinks it can perfect the technology faster than bigger, better-funded rivals.

Big rigs outfitted with Waabi’s AI-enabled software and sensors began hauling loads between Dallas and Houston booked through Uber Freight this month, founder and CEO Raquel Urtasun told Forbes. The trucks have human backup drivers for now, but will eventually operate in full autonomous mode, she said. The Toronto-based company spent two years perfecting its system using virtual trucks driving in advanced simulation before testing them on public roads. Urtasun declined to say exactly how many trucks are part of the Uber Freight program or how much revenue the company will generate from it.

“We expect to rapidly expand to more” routes and trucks, Urtasan said, without elaborating. “We’re partnering to provide a turnkey solution that provides all the necessary things for the ecosystem for both carriers as well as shippers. Waabi provides the AI, the Waabi driver, and Uber Freight provides the load matching as well as the ability to dynamically and continuously provide the routes for the trucks.”

The program launch comes during a rocky period for autonomous driving tech. Robotaxi pilot programs in San Francisco operated by General Motors’ Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo have angered some residents there, annoyed by occasional traffic snarls and interference with emergency vehicles. And while robot trucking was seen as an easier market to crack, it’s had its own problems. Startup Embark shut down early this year and was recently acquired by Applied Intuition, a maker of driver-assistance software. TuSimple, an early leader in robotrucks, is looking to sell its U.S. business after management turmoil. Even Waymo, the long-time self-driving leader, recently decided to pause its robot trucking program to focus on autonomous ride-hailing.

Meanwhile, companies such as Gatik are focusing on simpler “middle mile” deliveries, carrying groceries and packages from warehouses to stores on fixed routes in trucks traveling below highway speeds.

That makes Waabi’s new Uber Freight partnership, along with Softbank’s recent $1 billion investment in autonomous trucking startup Stack AI, much-needed good news for the segment. (Stack was created by the founders of Argo AI, a $3.5 billion self-driving tech venture that Ford and Volkswagen decided to shut down in 2022.)

Uber is a Waabi investor but the new partnership doesn’t include additional funding, said Uber Freight CEO Lior Ron. The company, which Ron says handles $20 billion of freight, already has robot trucks from Aurora operating in its network but isn’t having tech “bakeoff” between the companies.

“There's a lot of demand,” said Ron, a former Googler who’s been involved in autonomous trucking since 2016. “I would argue there is more demand from shippers for AV technology today, even when the human driver is in (the truck), than supply.”

Urtasan, a computer scientist who was part of Uber’s autonomous driving unit before starting Waabi, declined to confirm if the company is raising more funds beyond the initial $83.5 million it announced when it came out of stealth in 2021.

This article originally appeared on Forbes

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