Waabi, founded by U of T's Raquel Urtasun, raises US$200 million to launch self-driving trucks

June 20, 2024 by Rahul Kalvapalle - U of T News

Waabi, a self-driving trucking startup founded by University of Toronto artificial intelligence (AI) expert Raquel Urtasun, has raised US$200 million in series B funding to support the deployment of fully autonomous, AI-powered trucks in 2025.

The funding round was led by previous investors Uber Technologies Inc.– where Urtasun previously worked as chief scientist of the self-driving division — and Khosla Ventures and includes an array of other high-profile strategic investors including NVIDIA Corp., Volvo Group and Porsche Automobil Holding.

The latest funding brings total investment in Waabi to more than C$380 million and will be used to expand the Toronto-headquartered company’s team in both Canada and the U.S., as well as to launch driverless commercial deliveries in Texas by next year.

Waabi truck parked outside of Sidney Smith Hall.
Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn.

Urtasun, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science and co-founder of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, said Waabi’s end-to-end AI system is advancing self-driving technologies to frontiers beyond the reach of other industry players thanks to its unique ability to carry out complex reasoning.

“What we have at Waabi is a technology that brings generative AI to the physical world for the first time, where the idea is that you have a single AI system that is able to reason like a human does, and is able to generalize to situations everything that might happen on the road — including things that it has never seen before,” she said.

“It does so in a way that is interpretable, so you can validate and verify the system, and provably safe, which is very important as you deploy these massive robots in the real world.”

Paired with Waabi’s advanced simulator, the AI system reduces the need for time-consuming road testing, Urtasun explained.

The announcement came hours before Urtasun took to the main stage at the Collision tech conference in Toronto to deliver a talk on generative AI. Her remarks touched on the technological underpinnings of generative AI and future applications, and outlined how Waabi is bringing generative AI to the physical world — starting with trucking.

Raquel Urtasun presenting information on a stage.
Raquel Urtasun at the 2024 edition of Collision. Photo: Polina Teif.

Urtasun is one of several experts from U of T’s technology, innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem who are speaking at Collision. Others include University Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hinton, a world-renowned AI luminary and investor in Waabi.

“Self-driving technology is a prime example of how AI can dramatically improve our lives,” Hinton said in a news release. “Raquel and Waabi are at the forefront of innovation, developing a revolutionary approach that radically changes the way autonomous systems work and leads to safer and more efficient solutions.”

Earlier in the week, Urtasun brought one of Waabi’s trucks to the St. George campus and showcased some of its capabilities to Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, Tony Gaffney, president and CEO of the Vector Institute, and Michael Brudno, professor in the Department of Computer Science and chief data scientist at the University Health Network.

Melanie Woodin, Raquel Urtasun, Tony Gaffney and Michael Brudno.
From left: Melanie Woodin, Raquel Urtasun, Tony Gaffney and Michael Brudno. Photo: Nick Iwanyshyn.

Urtasun underscored the importance of the company being headquartered in Toronto. “We’re an AI company and Toronto has always been at the forefront of AI,” Urtasun said. “There’s tremendous talent here, a busy ecosystem, and for me it’s important to be in Canada, where I’m very aligned with the values of the country as well.”

Reflecting on her journey at U of T, where she started as an assistant professor in 2014, Urtasun said she initially assumed she would “just be an academic doing research for the rest of my life” — but soon realized that involvement in industry would be critical to advancing AI technologies for use in the real world.

“Three years ago, I saw a tremendous opportunity to start a new company and what you see today is the fruit of that, where we’re really close to deployment on public roads without a human [driver],” said Urtasun.

“It’s amazing — not just for Waabi, not just for Canada, but for the industry at large.”