Tech

One of the co-founders of Uber's ill-fated self-driving truck unit just raised money to solve the same problem

Key Points
  • One of the co-founders of Otto, the ill-fated autonomous trucking startup that Uber acquired in 2016, has launched a new startup in the same space.
  • The company — Kodiak Robotics — just raised $40 million.
Don Burnette (left) and Paz Eshel (right) are launching a new self-driving truck startup 
Courtesy of Kodiak Robotics 

The self-driving truck space is having a spate of déjà vu.

A week after Uber shut down its autonomous trucking unit, one of the people who spearheaded that effort is announcing tens of millions of dollars in fresh funding for a startup working on the exact same problem.

Uber kickstarted its trucking efforts in 2016 by acquiring Otto, and now one of its co-founders, Don Burnette, has teamed up with former venture capitalist Paz Eshel to launch Kodiak, a self-driving truck startup that just raised $40 million. Meanwhile, another Otto co-founder, Anthony Levandowski is working on his own autonomous trucking startup called Kache.ai, and former Otto engineering lead Nancy Sun has launched a stealthy startup in the same space.

These overlapping efforts are just the latest twist in a dramatic saga that pitted Uber against Alphabet's self-driving car unit, Waymo, in a legal dispute over trade secrets. Waymo accused former Googler Levandowski of bringing Waymo intellectual property with him to Otto, and then using that information at Uber. In the end, Uber settled for about $245 million.

Burnette declines to describe Kodiak's specific approach or business model, but tells CNBC that he sees no risk of IP issues with Otto, in part because his new startup plans to buy off-the-shelf LIDAR, cameras, radar, and other sensor technology, which it will pair with custom software. He left Uber in March, a few months before it folded its trucking unit.

Uber's ill-fated efforts aside, the self-driving truck space is particularly hot right now. Trucking reels in roughly $700 billion in annual revenue in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association, which also estimates that there was a 51,000-person driver shortage last year. A growing handful of startups, including Starsky Robotics, Embark and TuSimple, are all trying to cash in on that opportunity.

Waymo, too, has a trucking division, though Burnette says that he's not bullish about any company that doesn't just focus on trucks.

"People tend to think that self-driving trucks are a lot like self-driving cars — that if you're running a self-driving department at a very large company with a lot of resources, you want to find as much synergy between the two projects as you can," he says. "But we found that there's so much difference between driving trucks on highways and cars on downtown streets that trying to force an overlap in the algorithmic systems ends up hindering both platforms."

If you separate the two projects, like Uber did and like Waymo has, you have to decide where you're going to dedicate more of your resources, and in both of those cases, it has proven to be cars, not trucks, he says.

Big picture, experts estimate that autonomous trucks will likely hit mainstream adoption before cars, since there are fewer safety issues involved. Self-driving trucks have simpler routes to master, since they mainly operate on highways, and there doesn't have to be the same focus on comfort, because self-driving trucks will operate without passengers. A chock-full freight won't feel sick if the ride is jerky, for example.

Still, the crowded space means that there will likely be a few losers before any company wins big. Though, both Burnette and Eshel enjoy risk: The two first met about six years ago on a sky-driving trip.

Eshel's former fund, Battery Ventures, led Kodiak's funding round, and CRV, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Tusk Venture participated as well. The startup has 12 employees so far.

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