Autonomous trucking startup Waabi is committing billions of miles of driverless capacity to the Uber Freight network as part of a 10-year strategic partnership between the two companies.
Starting this week, Waabi’s test fleet will begin commercial pilots with shippers on the Uber Freight network to haul goods between Dallas and Houston. Ultimately, Waabi will move to a Driver-as-a-Service model, wherein carriers buy trucks built with Waabi’s Driver and can opt into the Uber Freight marketplace.
The tie-up with Uber is Waabi’s first publicly announced commercial partnership, and it comes just two years after the startup launched. That quick route to market is a testament to Waabi’s AI-first approach. Waabi uses a high-fidelity closed-loop simulator, called Waabi World, to both virtually test self-driving software and teach the system in real time. In other words, Waabi has a secret sauce to deploying and scaling much faster than the competition.
At least, that’s what Waabi says. But the results speak for themselves.
“Waabi is open for business, and it’s open for business big time,” Raquel Urtasun, founder and CEO of Waabi, told TechCrunch.
Urtasun formerly headed Uber ATG, the ride-hailing company’s self-driving unit, before Uber sold it to Aurora Innovation in 2020. Uber Freight also has an ongoing commercial partnership with Aurora and is currently operating on two lanes — Dallas to Houston and Fort Worth to El Paso.
Uber Freight’s deal with Waabi is reminiscent of a previous partnership with Waymo Via, Wayno’s autonomous trucking unit. The two teamed up for their own 10-year, multi-phase partnership in June 2022. But in July 2023, Waymo paused its self-driving trucks program and shifted all of its available resources to robotaxi development.
From an initial deployment perspective, the tie-ups are similar. But from a technology perspective, Uber Freight’s deal with Waabi is far more integrated.
“We’re talking about really connecting the software systems of both companies — network optimization, Uber Freight app, load bundling, reducing empty miles, sustainability and data benefits,” said Lior Ron, head of Uber Freight. “So we haven’t really gone to that extent in terms of really connecting the software systems of both the robot truck and the logistics network intimately.”
Urtasun referred to the partnership as a “Driver-as-a-Service bundle” that gives carriers access to the entire AV trucking ecosystem to remove friction for adoption. This bundle includes everything from transfer hubs and load matching to roadside assistance and maintenance.
Due to the involved nature of the partnerships, Uber Freight and Waabi have sought out shippers that can commit to five- to 10-year pilots so they can really understand how AVs will impact future operations, supply chain and network deployment.
“From our perspective, it’s a continuous deployment and ramp up,” said Ron, noting that Uber Freight has hundreds of shippers on a waiting list to deploy AV tech.
While Waabi will start running freight for shippers on one Texas lane between distribution centers, the company hopes to scale beyond the Houston-Dallas corridor, and even beyond Texas, quickly. All of the trucks will have a safety driver in the front seat during initial testing, but part of the bundle will be removing the driver for fully autonomous driving.
“When Waabi is ready to get the driver out, we can basically hit the ground running with a full commercial driverless deployment,” said Ron.
Uber Freight, which saw revenue drop 30% year-over-year in the second quarter due to “the challenging freight market cycle,” is playing the long game with Waabi.
“We’re looking at the exponential growth that is going to start happening when the driver is out,” said Ron. “Because when shippers are like, ‘I needed that tech yesterday,’ and you see an explosion in terms of demand and bottom line implications, as well.”