By Alejandro de la Garza
When it comes to technology trends, there are some counterintuitive upsides to getting in late, says Raquel Urtasun. “There is a huge advantage to be a second mover,” she says. The former chief scientist at Uber’s self-driving unit founded autonomous-trucking startup Waabi in 2021, half a decade after the sector’s hype surge of the mid-2010s. Many of the companies founded during that period failed to deliver on their lofty ambitions, and Urtasun, who is also a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, says moving behind the curve has helped Waabi succeed where others have struggled.
For one thing, starting late has allowed the company to take advantage of recent advances in AI: Waabi is able to train its driverless software much faster and more cheaply than its competitors in part by driving virtual trucks inside a highly realistic AI-generated simulation, Urtasun says. That allows the company to teach its driving software to navigate tricky situations without actually encountering them in real life. “You can create all these things that in the real world are very difficult or impossible to generate,” Urtasun says. “It’s not ethical to create an accident [in real life] to see if you can handle it.” The ideas behind Waabi have made a splash in the industry: the company raised about $83 million in venture-capital funding in 2021—and is planning to license its technology to companies that use long-haul trucking. Late last year, it unveiled its first robotic trucks, which will be used to trial the company’s systems.
Urtasun herself also sets Waabi apart, since there’s not exactly a surfeit of women in the world of AI, much less many women-led startups that have achieved such rapid success. “We typically need to do 10 times more to have the same recognition,” Urtasun says. “What has made me very successful is I have infinite grit. Regardless of what people say, that just fires me up to say, ‘I’m going to show you.’”