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Self-Driving Truck Startup Starsky Robotics Shuts Down After Series B Falls Through

Starsky Robotics, a maker of driverless trucks, announced yesterday it is shuttering its doors.

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The San Francisco-based startup had raised just over $20 million in funding since it was founded in 2015. Its last fundraise, a $16.5 million Series A led by Shasta Ventures, took place in March 2018. Previous investors include Y Combinator, Trucks.vc, 50 Years and 9Point Ventures.

At the time of its Series A, Starsky announced that it had successfully driven its self-driving cargo truck for seven miles without a driver, according to VentureBeat.

“No safety driver behind the wheel, no engineer hiding on the bunk. We are the first company to make driverless trucks a reality,” Starsky Robotics’ co-founder CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher said in a blog post then.

Fast-forward just over two years, and Seltz-Axmacher published a blog post with a far more somber tone titled simply, “The End of Starsky Robotics.” He wrote:

“In 2015, I got obsessed with the idea of driverless trucks and started Starsky Robotics. In 2016, we became the first street-legal vehicle to be paid to do real work without a person behind the wheel. In 2018, we became the first street-legal truck to do a fully unmanned run, albeit on a closed road. In 2019, our truck became the first fully-unmanned truck to drive on a live highway.

And in 2020, we’re shutting down.”

It’s unclear exactly how many employees will be affected by the shutdown, but a photo from February 2019 posted on Seltz-Axmacher’s blog shows “much of Starsky’s office team,” with just under three dozen employees.

In a March 19 blog post, Seltz-Axmacher details how things fell apart at the company. By Nov. 12, 2019, Starsky’s $20 million Series B had fallen through, and most of the team was furloughed just three days later in what he described as “probably the worst day of my life.” The founders then started working on selling the company, and “making sure the team didn’t go without shelter.”

What happened?

With so many autonomous vehicle funding companies raising millions of dollars as of late, one has to wonder what happened in the case of Starsky Robotics.

Seltz-Axmacher blames timing in part for his company’s demise.

In his blog post, he said the space was too overwhelmed “with the unmet promise of AI to focus on a practical solution.”

He continued:

“As those breakthroughs failed to appear, the downpour of investor interest became a drizzle. It also didn’t help that last year’s tech IPOs took a lot of energy out of the tech industry, and that trucking has been in a recession for 18 or so months.”

Seltz-Axmacher also noted that investors didn’t seem to care for the company’s model of being the operator. He also claimed that Starsky’s “heavy investment into safety didn’t translate for investors.”

Currently in the process of selling the assets of the company, Seltz-Axmacher said those assets include a number of patents essential to operating unmanned vehicles.

Meanwhile, Alphabet’s Waymo raised a staggering $2.25 billion earlier this month. That deal came just 10 months after rival self-driving car outfit Cruise raised roughly $1.15 billion at an approximate $18 billion post-money valuation. In February 2019, self-driving car startup Aurora raised $530 million in a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital.

Starsky’s competitors include Embark (which raised a $70 million Series C last September) and Canada’s Varden Labs.

According to VentureBeat, in September 2017 Starsky Robotics completed the longest end-to-end autonomous trip on record. “After Hurricane Irma hit southwestern Florida, the company used one of its trucks to aid recovery efforts, hauling water 68 miles from one end of the state to the other without human intervention.”

I’m no self-driving expert but that sounds pretty cool.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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