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Volvo AB’s venture capital arm has invested an undisclosed amount in Toronto autonomous-vehicle startup Waabi Innovation Inc.

“We see Volvo as providing tremendous value for us,” Waabi chief executive officer Raquel Urtasun said in an interview. “This announcement is an investment, but the intention is to really work together and explore ways to go to that scale of commercialization.” She declined to discuss Waabi’s plans or strategy for seeking investment from other automakers, but added “I don’t think this will preclude” that.

The Swedish auto giant’s investment is believed to be in the single-digit millions of dollars.

Prof. Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor renowned as one of the leading researchers in the field, was previously chief scientist at Uber Technologies Inc.’s self-driving division. She left with most of her 40-person team in early 2021 to start Waabi after U.S. autonomous-vehicle startup Aurora Innovation Inc. bought the unit. Both Uber and Aurora invested in Waabi, alongside U.S. and Canadian venture capitalists and AI luminaries including Geoffrey Hinton, when it raised US$83.5-million two years ago.

Volvo’s investment “significantly” increases Waabi’s valuation, Prof. Urtasun said, though she provided no figures. But it also brings Waabi its first automaker investor.

Waabi has developed an AI-powered simulator that Prof. Urtasun says will more rapidly and safely teach autonomous-vehicle (AV) systems to operate vehicles better than humans. Her system is like a driving school for robots run by another robot, as the simulator recreates the driving experience and challenges an AV driver’s weaknesses with scenarios so it learns faster. Prof. Urtasun says the simulator provides a level of experience that would take thousands of AVs millions of road miles to acquire, though the system will need to pass real-live tests.

The approach has enabled Waabi to remain lean and develop its technology fairly rapidly. Like some other AV startups, Waabi is targeting the trucking industry, pushing the idea its technology could do the job on hub-to-hub portions of long drives that don’t require talking with customers or loading and unloading. In November a few trucks began using the Waabi system on U.S. roads, with human safety drivers and safety engineers on board.

“We are impressed by what they have accomplished and see that Volvo Group can add considerable strategic value to the development of their business and are currently exploring ways to co-operate,” Martin Witt, Volvo Group Venture Capital president, said in a statement.

Volvo has been one of the world’s most active auto giants on the self-driving front. The company unveiled its 360c project in 2018 to bring an electric AV vehicle to roads. It has worked with other AV companies including Uber and Aurora to develop its own long-haul self-driving truck. Volvo’s venture arm has backed other AV startups, including Foretellix, another simulator company.

Despite Waabi’s advances, it operates in a sector replete with caution signs. After more than a decade of development and US$100-billion-plus of investment, the industry is a work in progress and mass deployment of AVs is still years away. AVs in service have struggled to handle bad weather, navigate around construction and traffic cones, animals and crossing guards and even make left turns. Driverless vehicles have also caused fatal accidents.

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