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Raquel Urtasun starts Toronto self-driving company Waabi, after leaving Uber

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TORONTO — After the COVID-19 pandemic turned travel demand upside down, Uber Technologies Inc. decided to hit the brakes on its six-year-old self-driving car venture, selling it to Silicon Valley startup Aurora.

By then Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group had settled a 2017 U.S. lawsuit in which it was accused of stealing trade secrets from Google’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo. Uber’s safety procedures underwent intense scrutiny after one of its test cars struck and killed a Tempe, Ariz. woman in 2018.

But Raquel Urtasun — the star of Uber’s self-driving efforts in Canada — wasn’t ready to give up on autonomous vehicles.

Urtasun, who was recruited from a University of Toronto professor job to run Uber’s Toronto ATG unit in 2017 and then promoted to become its chief scientist a year later, left the tech giant and started her own self-driving company, Waabi, earlier this year.

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Read more: Tech in T.O.: Meet Raquel Urtasun, the driving force behind Uber’s self-driving cars

“I had thought about doing my own company for a while now,” she said, ahead of unveiling her company to the world on Tuesday. “The more that I worked in the industry, the more it became clear that the traditional way of doing things is … I don’t think the way to go.

“There is a need for new technology and I have a very clear vision of what that technology is.”

So she set out to build that technology at Waabi, whose name is derived from an Ojibwe word meaning “she has vision” and the Japanese term for “simple.”

Waabi has a lofty goal: Bringing the promise of self-driving closer to commercialization than ever before.

Urtasun wouldn’t offer specific timelines for how soon Canadians could see self-driving vehicles on roads, but experts have predicted it could take anywhere from a few years to decades for them to become ubiquitous.

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Tesla co-founder Elon Musk estimated in 2015 that they would be commonplace in the next two to three years, while Lyft’s chief executive once imagined car ownership would “all but end” by 2025.

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Urtasun’s plan is to apply an artificial intelligence-first approach to self-driving vehicles. That’s a departure from the norm, where the cars are built around complex software that requires time consuming manual tuning and doesn’t take full advantage of AI.

Without AI, Urtasun argues that increasing the abilities of self-driving cars is more costly, technically challenging and sometimes less safe.

Waabi will focus first on the logistics and long-haul trucking industries because of their pressing needs.

Canada is expected to have a shortage of more than 25,000 truck drivers by 2023, a 25 per cent increase from the 2019 vacancies, a study from the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the Conference Board of Canada found.

Their report released last year found the shortage had already reduced revenues in the truck transportation industry by an estimated 4.7 per cent in 2018, equivalent to roughly $3.1 billion.

Read more: Uber halts autonomous vehicle program in Toronto, U.S. after woman struck, killed by self-driving car

It cited an aging workforce, difficulties attracting women and youth, and a high turnover rate as reasons why the industry is struggling.

“There’s an incredible shortage of drivers and it’s just getting even worse with COVID-19,” Urtasun said. “Trucking is one of the most dangerous jobs … and so that’s one need for this technology.”

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Canadian Tire Corp. and Waabi rival NuPort robotics are already testing autonomous technology to courier goods between the retailer’s distribution warehouse and rail terminals, while Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Palo Alto, Calif.’s Gatik are exploring using the technology for grocery deliveries.

Urtasun and Waabi intend to take a partnership-friendly approach to the technology they are building in hopes of pushing autonomous vehicles towards commercialization even sooner.

Read more: The future of self-driving cars, explained

“We are going to be part of the ecosystem,” Urtasun said. “We don’t want to disrupt the entire ecosystem.”

They are building that ecosystem with US$83.5 million in Series A financing led by Khosla Ventures, a Menlo Park, Calif. firm that has also invested in DoorDash, Instacart, Impossible Foods, Square, Stripe and Wattpad.

Waabi also received funding from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, Omers Ventures, Business Development Bank of Canada and artificial intelligence luminaries, including AI godfather Geoffrey Hinton and Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel and Sanja Fidler.

Waabi will do most of its work in Toronto, where it is headquartered, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it has a small group of staff.

Though Urtasun originally hails from Spain, she said it was important to keep her company Canadian.

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“My goal with Waabi is to really put Canada at the forefront of self-driving. We have an amazing opportunity here and I think we have the talent here,” she said.

“I love this country and I love the city of Toronto and this is the place they want to be, so it’s a no brainer … People always ask `why Canada?’ My answer is always, `Why not?”’

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