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SoftBank places big bet autonomous trucks will ‘fundamentally change’ supply chains

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The founders of the former self-driving unit of Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG are launching a new autonomous trucking startup with backing said to be more than $1 billion from Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

The new firm, named Stack AV, is led by Bryan Salesky, Pete Rander and Brett Browning, who previously ran Argo AI, the self-driving operation that Ford and VW shut down last year. Based in Pittsburgh, which was also home to Argo, Stack AV has hired 150 people and already has a test fleet of trucks on the road, Salesky said in an interview.

While Salesky and SoftBank declined to detail the investment in Stack, Matt Smith, an economic development official in Pittsburgh, said he expects the commitment to be “north of $1 billion,” adding to a growing tech corridor in the city known as Robotics Row.

The Stack AV founders connected with SoftBank early this year and Salesky said the Japanese investment tech conglomerate, which says it manages more than $160 billion in assets involved in artificial intelligence, agreed to provide “patient capital” to see the startup through to commercializing its autonomous trucking technology.

“SoftBank knows how to scale a global, real-world business,” Salesky said. “That backing is hugely helpful in an effort like this where you’ve got to be in it for the long term.”

Ford and VW grew impatient with Argo after investing a combined $3.6 billion in the startup and closed it last year as sentiment was souring on self-driving technology. A Ford executive at the time said it is easier to put a man on the moon than a full self-driving car on the road. SoftBank also exited its investment in AV firm Cruise LLC last year, selling its stake for $2.1 billion to the startup’s parent, General Motors Co.

But driverless delivery — with its repetitive routes and highway driving — has long shown promise for automation. Indeed, Amazon.com Inc. considered rescuing Argo last year before a faltering economy caused on the online retailer to retrench.

Now Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank sees new opportunity in backing Stack AV to help solve the logistics and supply chain issues that emerged during the pandemic as more consumers turned to online commerce.

“Stack is led by industry veterans, Bryan, Pete, and Brett, who have been instrumental in shaping the AV industry,” Kentaro Matsui, head of new business at SoftBank, said in an emailed response to questions. “Under their leadership, coupled with SoftBank’s AI expertise and resources, we believe Stack’s AI-powered technology will fundamentally change the transportation of goods and supply chains.”

In a Bloomberg Television interview, Salesky said SoftBank is giving Stack AV the time and resources required to solve the “world-scale problem” of supply chain and safety issues that plague trucking.

“This requires patient, long-term capital,” Salesky said. “It certainly requires a big vision in order to make this happen.”

Stack will be competing against Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, whose Via unit specializes in freight, as well as Aurora Innovation, also based in Pittsburgh, and TuSimple Holdings Inc., which is currently seeking a buyer. Startups and seasoned tech players have struggled to convince investors they will eventually generate a meaningful return.

Read More: Founders of Ford’s Defunct Argo Launch New Self-Driving Startup

But Salesky said he is demonstrating Stack’s technology on 18-wheelers to potential customers, whom he declined to name, and the feedback has been good. While the current fleet runs on traditional engines, the technology is capable of being used on electric vehicles.

“We have a fleet of trucks on the road testing today and we’re getting potential partners up-to-speed on what we’re doing,” Salesky said. “We’ve seen a lot of interest.”

Salesky and Rander, veterans of self-driving efforts at Alphabet and Uber Technologies Inc., see a strong business case for automating trucking.

“We’re looking at full-autonomy, a very capable self-driving system that isn’t just constrained to one lane or exit to exit,” Salesky said. “We have to get to a point where these trucks can go anywhere for it to eventually get adopted.”

Salesky declined to say when Stack will commercialize its technology. SoftBank’s Matsui also didn’t put a timeline on when it expects a return on its investment in Stack.

“We understand the significant resources needed to succeed,” Matsui said, “and are committed to supporting Stack as they execute their vision.”

Putting a robot behind the wheel of a big rig would help to solve many issues with long-haul trucking, such as a persistent driver shortage and significant safety issues that see a half-million crashes annually in the US involving big trucks.

“The lifesaving potential is huge,” Salesky said, “as well as the ability to improve supply chains, improve efficiency, improve uptime and get things to where they need to go faster. A strong trucking industry is an important part of a robust economy.”

— With assistance by Edward Ludlow and Caroline Hyde



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