As chief scientist for Uber ATG – the company’s self-driving vehicle division that was sold to Aurora in December 2020 – Raquel Urtasun played a firsthand role in developing the technology that powered the division’s vehicles.
With nearly two decades of machine learning and artificial intelligence experience, Urtasun has developed expertise in the space and is a leading voice in North America for the technologies. In her “spare time,” she is also a professor at the University of Toronto.
On Tuesday, Urtasun unveiled her latest project, bringing Waabi out of stealth with one of the largest Series A funding rounds ever in Canada.
Led by Khosla Ventures with additional participation from Uber, 8VC (which is an investor in FreightWaves), Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC Capital’s Women in Technology Fund, Aurora Innovation, and AI luminaries Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others, Waabi announced an $83.5 million Series A to help it develop its AI self-driving technology in Toronto.
“Self-driving is one of the most exciting and important technologies of our generation. Once solved at scale, it will change the world as we know it,” Urtasun said. “Waabi is the culmination of my life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society and I’m honored to be joined by a team of extraordinary scientists, engineers and technologists who are equally committed to executing on this bold vision.”
Urtasun said that while the self-driving industry has made great strides since the first work started in the early 2000s, much more can be done. Waabi, she said, hopes to be the leader by using an AI-first approach.
“I’ve made it my life’s mission to solve it,” she told FreightWaves, adding that she expects Waabi to provide “the next generation of self-driving technology.”
What makes Waabi different, Urtasun explained, is the AI-first effort.
“Self-driving is one of the most exciting and important technologies of our generation. Once solved at scale, it will change the world as we know it.”
Raquel Urtasun, founder of Waabi
“The traditional approach, while employing AI, AI had a secondary role … and [this approach] doesn’t utilize its full power,” she said. “This has made scaling the technology very costly [in addition to] the technology challenges. I believe there is a need for a new approach.”
Waabi is not a vehicle developer, but instead will partner with companies for sensors and vehicles. Waabi will focus on the technology side and will utilize a closed-loop simulator it has developed to enable testing at scale for both common driving scenarios as well as unusual situations. This allows it to develop its technology without the need for physical vehicles to spend hundreds of hours on roadways hoping to encounter various scenarios.
“The beauty of this technology is it is end-to-end trainable, meaning … it can learn to deal with the complexity of the real world,” Urtasun said. She added the technology allows engineers to trace back into the decisions the AI system made.
“Waabi brings something radically new to the self-driving space,” said Sven Strohband, managing director at Khosla Ventures. “With a dream team that has been at the forefront of innovation in the industry and a differentiated, AI-first approach, Waabi is well positioned to lead the next generation of self-driving technology and we’re thrilled to support them in that journey.”
“Raquel is truly one-of-a-kind — a tenacious and inspiring leader who empowers those around her to excel,” Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber, added. “I can’t wait to see everything she accomplishes for the self-driving industry.”
The AI-first approach also allows the system to make quicker decisions, Urtasun said.
“Most [companies] are using the traditional approach where AI is only a small piece within the entire technology stack … so it has a small role within this complex system,” she said. “AI systems are trained to do this very small task and then humans are [tasked to handle aspects of the decision-making] … and all this stuff goes into making a final decision. It’s very difficult to understand or orchestrate how all this can be built.”
This approach makes the entire process quicker and simpler, which harkens to the name Waabi, which means “simply” in Japanese. It also means “she has vision” in the First Nations of Canada language.
While self-driving technology is quickly accelerating in the auto space, Urtasun said Waabi would focus on long-haul trucks. Due to weight and other considerations, commercial vehicles are more complex, but Urtasun said it makes more sense.
“It’s a car-versus-truck difference, it’s highway versus city,” she said. “Highway scenarios and things that happen on highways are [less] than the incidents that happen [in cities].”
Trucks need to see farther in the distance because of longer stopping times, but Urtasun said that is offset by long distances on highways.
Waabi has about 40 employees currently with most located in the Toronto area. A few employees are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We believe that diversity powers innovation, and we are committed to supporting women-led technology companies that have world-changing potential,” said Michelle Scarborough, managing partner of strategic investments and Women in Tech Venture Fund at BDC. “Raquel Urtasun is a pioneer in the self-driving space who will use her unrivaled qualifications, unparalleled experience and deep knowledge to build the future. We’re so proud to champion her and her team and partner with them as they build Waabi into a global leader.”