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Autonomous Trucking’s Highway To Broke

Illustration of neon sign reading goodbye money

The highway of startup ambitions is littered with the wreckage of companies that aimed to bring autonomy to the long-haul trucking industry.

Earlier this week, we documented the downward stock market trajectory of Embark Technology, a startup — backed by a host of big-name VCs — that has seen virtually all of its valuation evaporate since going public the past year.

But we’d be remiss to create the impression that Embark is the only high-valuation startup to find obstacles on the road to implementing autonomous trucking. A lot of upstarts devising labor-saving ways to truck goods from point A to point B have found anything but an easy route to market.

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Using Crunchbase data, we identified at least six companies, in addition to Embark, that have raised venture capital for autonomous truck technology. Of those six, three have shut down and one has seen its valuation crumble. A couple more are still trucking ahead, having last raised financing in sunnier times for the space.

Below, we look at the most prominent funding recipients, and where they are now:

No. 1 Otto: San Francisco-based Otto, one of the earlier startups focused on self-driving trucks, sold to Uber for $680 million in 2016. About two years later, Uber shuttered its self-driving truck division and said it would focus its autonomous driving efforts on cars.

No. 2 Starsky Robotics: Starsky Robotics, a venture-backed San Francisco-based autonomous trucking upstart, was another casualty. The company shut down in 2020 after its Series B fell through. Starsky had raised just over $20 million in funding since it was founded in 2015.

No. 3 Peloton Technology: A similar fate befell Peloton Technology, a Silicon Valley-based autonomous and connected driving technology startup that developed a vehicle “platooning” system to enable pairs of trucks to operate at a close following distance. The company raised over $78 million in known funding before shuttering last year.

No. 4 TuSimple: Next up is TuSimple, a San Diego-headquartered developer of robotic truck technology that carried out an IPO in April 2022. It has also fared poorly. After going public at an initial valuation around $8.5 billion, the company now has a market cap around $500 million, and what looks to be a negative enterprise value. Shares fell last month when the company fired its CEO amid an investigation into improper ties to a Chinese startup.

No. 5 Kodiak Robotics: One more that’s still on the road is Kodiak Robotics, which has raised $165 million in venture funding to date. Notably, the Silicon Valley company took on debt financing for its last round of $30 million in October. While we don’t know Kodiak’s specific reason for taking debt, it is sometimes a strategy for companies that need growth capital but prefer to avoid a VC-funded down round in a time of declining valuations.

No. 6 Aurora: Last but not least is Aurora. Founded in 2017, the Pittsburgh-based company announced in summer of 2021 that it would go public via a merger with a SPAC, Reinvent Technology, at an initial market capitalization of around $13 billion (including about $2.5 billion in cash). At the time, the company planned to first launch its autonomous driving technology for the trucking industry in 2023, with last-mile delivery and ride-hailing markets to follow. Shares are now down more than 90% from their post-debut peak about a year ago.

The broad takeaway? This is a hard market to crack and, while impressive technology abounds, no one has yet succeeded commercially. Investors are currently not looking so optimistic about the prospects that anyone will either.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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