Autonomous driving luminary Raquel Urtasun is ready to take her show on the road.
Ms. Urtasun’s Waabi Innovation Inc. is officially rolling out its artificial intelligence-powered self-driving system Wednesday, targeting truck makers and trucking companies looking to replace humans on long-haul routes.
The chief executive officer and founder of the Toronto company said in an interview a handful of trucks are “ready to be deployed” on U.S. roads immediately, albeit with human safety drivers and safety engineers on board as the technology remains under development. “You are going to see our trucks driving in North America as we speak.”
Ms. Urtasun declined to say which manufacturers Waabi is working with, but company images of Waabi-mounted trucks bear the logo of U.S. manufacturer Peterbilt Motors Co. Waabi’s technology includes both hardware sensors mounted on the vehicle and automated driving software.
Despite its momentum, Waabi, founded in 2021, operates in a sector replete with caution signs. After more than a decade of development and US$100-billion-plus of investment, the industry remains a work in progress. Testing is allowed on roads in 48 U.S. states and a handful of Canadian provinces, including Ontario. But autonomous vehicles (AVs) have struggled to handle bad weather, navigate around construction and traffic cones, animals and crossing guards and even to make left terms.
Driverless vehicles have caused accidents resulting in injury and death, but also comical mishaps: a woman in San Francisco reported dozens of driverless cars operated by Google’s Waymo unit used her driveway to execute three-point turns “like an army of zombie driver’s ed students,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported last month.
Stocks of publicly traded AV companies have crashed, and success remains elusive; Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley, whose company closed its Argo AI unit this year, said recently mass deployment of AVs is “a long way off.”
Even industry pioneer and engineer Anthony Levandowski, who was convicted of stealing trade secrets from Google Inc. after he was hired away by Uber Technologies Inc. in 2016 (and later fired), told Bloomberg: “You’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little.”
Ms. Urtasun acknowledged “we are in a bit of an AV winter” marked by “negative sentiment that progress is too slow and too far away.” But she said Waabi’s approach represents a step forward with technology “that is much more scalable, less capital-intensive, more sustainable and that can progress much faster” than what has come before.
The native of Pamplona, Spain, was an assistant professor with the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago before moving to Canada in 2014 to teach at University of Toronto. She joined Uber’s self-driving division as chief scientist in 2017, remaining in Canada’s largest city.
She left with more than half her 40-person team early last year to start Waabi after AV 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 last year.
Waabi has developed an AI-powered simulator that Ms. Urtasun says will more rapidly and safely teach autonomous driving systems how to operate vehicles better than humans. Her system is effectively 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. Ms. 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 still need to pass real-live tests.
The company has also raided rivals including TuSimple Holdings Inc., Embark Technology Inc. and Aurora for senior staff.
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. Loblaw Cos. Ltd. is also testing driverless technology from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Gatik AI Inc. to handle fixed short-haul routes between stores.
But Ms. Urtasun is also aware of potential regulatory and political roadblocks that could arise, disrupting an industry that employs 300,000 people in Canada alone. Waabi has added several trucking industry veterans, including staff who have served on American Trucking Associations committees. Washington-based Sam Loesche, former senior legislative and policy representative with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, has also joined the company, as head of policy and public affairs.
“This is very important” to hire from industry, Ms. Urtasun said. Other companies “are building product in a vacuum without taking into account the customers. That’s a big mistake.
“We want every single person who is a truck driver today to retire as a truck driver. We are here to enhance, not displace” them, she said. Instead, Waabi is pushing the idea that it can automate an unpleasant transportation task so “human drivers can focus on the last mile, where they can be close to home and arrive home every day. It’s a nice way to enhance human life.”