Waabi, the rare autonomous vehicle startup with a woman CEO, raises $83.5 million


Raquel Urtasan helped run Uber’s autonomous vehicle division in Toronto before founding his company

Wabi is a new autonomous vehicle startup that has a few things that help it rise above the fray.

For one, it is founded by Raquel Urtsun, a renowned computer vision expert who runs the Toronto outpost of Uber Advanced Technology Group, making it one of the few women-led AV startups in the world. Second, the Toronto-based company came out of stealth, raising $83.5 million, one of the largest Series A rounds ever in Canada.

The round was led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from Urtasan’s former employer, Uber, and Aurora, the AV startup that acquired Uber ATG in a deal last year. Funding was also raised from 8VC, Radical Ventures, Omers Ventures, BDC, AI Luminaries Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Lee, Peter Abeel, Sanja Fiedler and others.

That’s a pretty auspicious start for a company that’s jumping into a very crowded space with dozens of startups trying to solve the world’s toughest problem: making cars and trucks themselves safely, reliably. and how to run efficiently.

Wabi’s approach will be to focus on trucking, using its proprietary software to automate driving on commercial delivery routes. And with its innovative approach to simulation and machine learning, Wabi says it is poised to commercialize its technology faster and cheaper than most AV startups operating today.

Urtasan says that her expertise in artificial intelligence, which she has been working on for more than 20 years, also gives Wabi a distinct advantage. “I’ve seen what really works, what doesn’t work for AI and technology deployed in a commercial software stack,” she said. ledge.

There are two reasons to set your sights on wabi trucks as opposed to robotaxis or last-mile delivery vehicles. One is an “incredible” shortage of truck drivers, which Urtasun said could be corrected by the rapid deployment of fully autonomous big-rigs. The second is that highways are “simpler” than complex city streets for autonomous vehicles to navigate.

There is an apprehension in the trucking industry that autonomous technology will cause huge displacement among truck drivers. a 2017 study found that automated trucks could reduce driver demand by 50 to 70 percent in the US and Europe by 2030, with 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents becoming obsolete. These fears are further heightened as tech companies introduce flashy, cabin-less prototypes designed to take the driver out of the equation entirely.

Nonetheless, there has been a mini-boom in the number of first startups to deploy autonomous tractor-trailers. This includes well-financed companies such as Waymo, TuSimple, and Aurora; OEMs such as Volvo and Daimler; and several smaller startups like Ike (which was recently acquired by Nuro), Embark, and Plus.

Wabi’s approach will be more “AI-focused” than its competitors, Urtson says. That means a sophisticated “closed loop” simulation program that obviates the need to test millions of miles on public roads and highways. Wabi plans to purchase several trucks to test its software, but Urtasun said it won’t need a handful of vehicles due to its innovative approach to simulation.

“So for us in the simulation, we can test the whole system,” Urtsun said. “We can train an entire system to learn in simulations, and we can design simulations with an incredible level of fidelity, such that what happens in the simulation with what is happening in the real world, we can actually can correlate.”

Urtasun and his team are also developing a new algorithm that will serve as the foundation for a self-driving car’s “brain,” which helps plan motion and predict what other vehicles on the road will do, so Evie can react accordingly.

“You end up with a better scaling technique,” she said, “that you can develop much faster and much cheaper than any solution.”

Urtasan began working at Uber in 2017, when the ride-hailing giant brought her to Toronto to serve as chief scientist and head of research and development. Over the years, his team grew from a small group of eight graduate students to eventually grow to about 50 people.

In Toronto, Urtasun was largely untouched by the chaos that increasingly engulfed Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco. The company’s CEO and co-founder, Travis Kalanick, was fired a little more than a month after Urtasson’s appointment was announced. And a year later, a self-driving Uber vehicle with a security operator behind the wheel rammed and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona.

The crash investigation blamed Uber for the lack of a strong culture of safety in the autonomous vehicle division. And late last year, Uber finally abandoned it, spun off its troubled advanced technology conglomerate into Aurora to reduce costs and signal to investors that it was a real path to profitability. Aurora sent offer letters to approximately 75 percent of Uber ATG employees, According to Nerdshala – But Urtasan’s team was not involved in this.

It was surprising among AV sources that Aurora did not make Urtasun an offer. Today’s news helps explain why. Urtasan said her experience at Uber, including the fatal crash in Tempe, “really marks the importance of safety and safety first” at Wabi. “It’s also one of the reasons we were doing a lot of our development in simulation,” she said, “to reduce the risk of developing this technology as well.”

“Raquel is truly one of its kind – a determined and inspiring leader who empowers those around her to excel,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “I can’t wait to see all that is happening for the self-driving industry.”

In addition to his work at Uber, Urtasun is a University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning and Computer Vision, as well as a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.

Urtasan said that he chose the name “Wabi” because it had some contextual meaning. In Canada’s First Nations tribes, it means “he has vision,” while in Japanese, it translates as “simple.” The first describes Urtasun’s expertise in computer vision and artificial intelligence, while the latter his company’s intention to simplify the technology that powers self-driving vehicles.

It’s rare for an autonomous vehicle startup to have a female founder and CEO, but Urtasan says she hopes to inspire other women to join the industry. “This is an area that is heavily dominated by white dudes,” she said. “The way to integrate knowledge is to build technology with diverse perspectives, because by challenging each other, we build better things.”

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