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

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Waabi is a new autonomous vehicle startup with a few things that make it stand out from the crowd.

First, it was founded by Raquel Urtasun, a renowned computer vision expert who ran the Uber Advanced Technology Group’s Toronto outpost, making it one of the few female-led AV startups in the world. Second, the Toronto-based company just got out of stealth and has raised $83.5 million, which is one of the largest Series A rounds ever raised in Canada.

The round was led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from Urtasun’s former employer, Uber, and Aurora, the AV startup that Uber acquired ATG in a deal last year. Funding was also raised from 8VC, Radical Ventures, Omers Ventures, BDC, AI luminaries Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.

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

Waabi’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, Waabi says it is poised to commercialize its technology faster and cheaper than most AV startups operating today.

Urtasun says her expertise in artificial intelligence, which she has been working on for more than 20 years, also gives Waabi a distinct advantage. “I’ve really seen what works and what doesn’t for AI and technology deployed in a commercial software stack,” she told The edge.

There are two reasons why Waabi has set his sights on trucks rather than robotaxis or last-mile vans. One is the “incredible” shortage of truck drivers, which Urtasun says could be remedied by the rapid deployment of fully autonomous big rigs. The second is that highways are “easier” than complex city streets for autonomous vehicles to navigate.

There are fears in the trucking industry that autonomous technology will lead to massive displacements among truck drivers. A 2017 study found that automated trucks could reduce driver demand in the US and Europe by as much as 50 to 70 percent by 2030, leaving 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents obsolete. These fears are compounded as tech companies introduce eye-catching cabless prototypes designed to take the driver completely out of the equation.

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

Waabi’s approach will be more “AI-centric” than its competitors, Urtasun says. That means an advanced closed-loop simulation program that reduces the need to collect millions of miles of tests on public roads and highways. Waabi plans to buy several trucks to test the software, but Urtasun said it won’t need more than a handful of vehicles, thanks to its innovative approach to simulation.

“So for us in simulation we can test the whole system,” Urtasun said. “We can train an entire system to learn in simulation, and we can produce the simulations with incredible fidelity, so we can really correlate what’s happening in simulation with what’s happening in the real world.”

Urtasun and her team are also developing a new algorithm that will serve as the foundation for the self-driving car ‘brain’, helping to plan movements and predict what other vehicles will do on the road so that the AV can respond accordingly.

“You end up with a much better scaling technology,” she added, “that you can develop much faster and much cheaper than all the solutions out there.”

Urtasun started working at Uber in 2017, when the taxi giant hired her as chief scientist and head of research and development in Toronto. Over the years, her team grew from a small group of eight graduates to eventually around 50 people.

In Toronto, Urtasun was largely isolated from the chaos that quickly enveloped Uber’s San Francisco headquarters. The company’s CEO and co-founder, Travis Kalanick, was ousted just over a month after Urtasun’s appointment was announced. And a year later, a self-driving Uber car with a security officer behind the wheel struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona.

An investigation into the crash blames Uber for the lack of a robust safety culture in its autonomous vehicle division. And late last year, Uber finally called it quits, transferring the beleaguered Advanced Technology Group to Aurora in a bid to cut costs and let investors know it had a real path to profitability. Aurora sent offer letters to about 75 percent of Uber ATG employees, according to TechCrunch – but that didn’t include Urtasun’s team.

AV sources were surprised that Aurora Urtasun didn’t make an offer. Today’s news helps explain why. Urtasun said her experience at Uber, including the fatal crash in Tempe, “really instilled the importance of safety and puts safety first” at Waabi. “This is also one of the reasons we did a lot of our development in simulation,” she added, “to also reduce the risk of developing this technology.”

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

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

Urtasun said she chose the name “Waabi” because it had a number of relevant meanings. Among Canada’s First Nations tribes, it means ‘she has vision’ while in Japanese it translates as ‘simple’. The first talks about Urtasun’s expertise in computer vision and artificial intelligence, while the second talks about her company’s intention to simplify the technology for self-driving vehicles.

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