Transportation & Logistics

Self-Driving Tech Startups Are Driving Off A Cliff On Public Markets

Illustration of arrow pointing down-valuations

A few years ago, public market investors sometimes lamented the lack of opportunities to directly invest in future-shaping technologies like autonomous driving.

Then, the SPAC and IPO boom of 2020-2021 arrived. All of a sudden, companies in scores of sectors once confined to venture capital portfolios were widely available on public markets. Developers of technologies tied to self-driving vehicles were particularly well-represented, launching market debuts with collective initial valuations of over $50 billion. 

But investors’ love affair with the space didn’t last. A Crunchbase analysis of 14 companies developing technologies tied to self-driving vehicles 1that went public in the past couple of years shows an average post-debut decline of more than 80%.

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The worst performers—a list that includes autonomous truck developer Embark and LiDAR technology companies Velodyne Lidar and Quanergy—are down over 95% or more. Both Quanery and Embark also completed reverse stock splits this year to lower the danger of delisting, only to see further valuation declines.

For a full rundown of how these 14 companies have performed, we put together a chart, seen below, showing valuations at time of debut compared to now:

VCs are still investing

Given the public market’s rapidly decelerating interest in the space, one might expect to see venture investors put the brakes on big rounds for private companies tied to autonomous driving. That hasn’t entirely been the case.

We’re still seeing some big rounds this year. For instance, London-based Wayve, developer of what it describes as a “next generation” autonomous vehicle technology driven by machine learning, pulled in $200 million in a Series B, bringing total investment to over $450 million. (It should be noted that this was in January, before public markets posted their most severe declines).

Meanwhile, Cavnue, a developer of advanced roadways tailored for connected and autonomous vehicles, pulled in $130 million in an April Series A co-led by Ford. Several China-based companies have also secured big rounds, including WeRide, a developer of autonomous vehicles, and Soterea, which focused on automating vehicle safety features.

Still, things are way down from 2021, particularly for large, later-stage rounds. We aren’t seeing financings similar in stage or size to last year’s biggest round in the space, a $600 million Series D for Nuro, which makes self-driving electric vehicles for local deliveries. Obviously, pre-IPO rounds aren’t happening either, given both the state of the IPO market and the condition of already public companies in this industry.

It’s not about profits

As we ponder the causes of the great 2022 sell-off of stocks related to LiDAR and self-driving vehicles, one possibility can immediately be stricken from the list.

No one is dumping shares in these companies because profits are down. They never had profits in the first place. 

It’s also unclear to what extent revenues might be a driver. Those that have sales are by-and-large early in their scaling, while others are still pre-revenue. This was never a bet on present earnings but rather on the future potential of a massive technological shift.

If we look at valuations of the worst performers on our list, it appears investors have mostly given up. 

Take Embark Technology, which develops software to power self-driving trucks. The San Francisco-based company was valued around $5.2 billion when it went public in November through a SPAC merger. It had raised over $117 million as a private company, pulled in another $614 million for its public offering, and counted Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital among its lead backers.

Just a year after its debut, Embark is valued at less than the cash reserves it had at the end of its last quarter. Shares are down a whopping 97% from their debut price. 

So, just to put it in perspective: This would be like if the price of your $1 million California house went down in a few months to just $30,000. It’s pretty catastrophic.

For Embark, which is pre-revenue, it’s tough to say what could be the catalyst for such a cataclysmic decline. By the same token, it’s also difficult to surmise what supported that $5.2 billion valuation just 11 months ago. Investors just aren’t paying what they used to for this kind of thing.

In coming quarters, it’ll be interesting to see which companies that went public during the 2020-21 window of opportunity have regained investors’ favor. For now, it’s looking like pretty much the whole autonomous driving unicorn herd has headed downhill fast.


Illustration: Dom Guzman

  1. Some companies on our list have more direct ties to autonomous driving than others. While some are devoted to self-driving technology, others include autonomy among multiple vertical industries their technology serves.

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