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Raquel Urtasun, founder of Waabi Innovation Inc., in Toronto, in June, 2021.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Ever since Raquel Urtasun founded Waabi Innovation Inc. in 2021, much of the Toronto-based company’s work to develop self-driving vehicles has been completed via simulation, with an artificial intelligence model learning to navigate virtual roads. Now, autonomous trucks powered by Waabi’s software are making commercial deliveries for the first time in a partnership with Uber Freight, the ride-hailing company’s logistics division.

The two companies announced the partnership Thursday to push forward autonomous trucking, allowing Uber Freight’s customers to access tractor trailers running Waabi’s software. Shipments began this week as part of a pilot project, albeit on a small scale. The deliveries are limited to the roughly 385 kilometres between Dallas and Houston in Texas, and a safety driver is on board ready to control, along with an engineer.

The pilot allows the company to test its software, called Waabi Driver, in a commercial setting. “It’s not just about the technology, you also have to have a product market fit,” Ms. Urtasun said. “One of the things that is very important is to make sure whatever we are doing is exactly what the customers need.” Over the next decade, the companies intend to run Waabi-powered trucks over billions of miles.

Autonomous vehicles, however, have hit more than a few barriers, both figurative and literal. Expectations have long outrun the capabilities, and self-driving vehicles are still proving to be accident prone. Autonomous vehicles made by Cruise in the U.S., for example, have stopped suddenly while making left turns, rear-ended buses and driven over downed power lines.

Intercity trucking is seen by some proponents as an easier challenge than urban driving, given that it involves long stretches of monotonous highway. But an autonomous truck from TuSimple Holdings Inc. slammed into a concrete barrier last year, even with a safety driver on board.

Development is capital intensive, too. Driverless trucking company Embark Technology Inc., founded by two University of Waterloo dropouts, went public in 2021 at a US$5.2-billion valuation, but was sold in May to an automotive software company in a deal valued at just US$71-million. Argo AI, backed by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen, shut down last year.

Ms. Urtasun is well aware of the setbacks, but undeterred. “I’ve been working on this for 15 years now, so I sympathize with what you’re saying,” she said. “We have all the ingredients to understand what needs to be done.”

Born in Spain, Ms. Urtasun joined the University of Toronto as a computer science professor and became the chief scientist at Uber’s self-driving division in 2017 before founding Waabi. She is considered one of the world’s leading experts in the field. Waabi has attracted investment from Uber, Aurora Innovation Inc., Volvo AB’s venture capital arm and Radical Ventures in Toronto, among others.

Waabi has taken a different approach to self-driving and developed a simulator that essentially clones the world and generates different scenarios to teach an AI model to drive, which Ms. Urtasun has said is safer and less capital intensive than training models by putting vehicles on the road.

Waabi’s technology is also capable of generalizing its knowledge to respond to situations it has not encountered before, Ms. Urtasun said, which has been a shortcoming of autonomous vehicles.

The virtual training approach will now be put to the test in the real world. While the company has piloted vehicles on public roads, it has not done so with commercial loads. Neither Ms. Urtasun nor Uber Freight would disclose the clients in Texas, nor what products are being transported.

Ms. Urtasun said Waabi Driver is designed to work across manufacturers and declined to comment on which company built the trucks, but media photos show vehicles bearing the Peterbilt logo.

Uber Freight, which matches shippers with carriers and has US$18-billion worth of freight under management per year, has signed similar partnerships with Aurora Innovation Inc. and Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Waymo. “Shippers and carriers are looking for an integrated solution at scale,” said Lior Ron, chief executive of Uber Freight, in an interview. “And they’re looking for ways to save costs, increase efficiency and have a safe future.”

In addition to those purported benefits, proponents have pitched the technology as a way to deal with supply chain crunches, carbon emissions, labour shortages and an aging cohort of drivers.

Both companies foresee autonomous trucks working in tandem with human drivers. Robot drivers can handle the long-haul portions of a delivery, while people will tackle the urban driving that typically bookends shipments.

This model, if successful, could mean reordering supply chains. “Maybe I don’t need 25 distribution centres, maybe only 15,” Mr. Ron said of companies that transport products. “Because now I have a truck that can cross a distance of two days in a day because it doesn’t need to pause or rest.”

Waabi hopes to expand its pilot beyond Texas, but the state is an ideal place to start, given its warm climate and lack of snow. “You want to deploy the technology in a way that is fast, safely,” Ms. Urtasun said. “We are very well positioned to tackle some of the challenges of snow, because we can simulate snow in a very realistic way, so we can get our systems ready to deploy in the winter when we are ready.”

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