Today marks an exciting milestone for the autonomous driving industry. Embark is officially launching, unveiling its self-driving truck to the world. Embark has developed software that enables trucks to drive from exit-to-exit on the freeway without any human input. With this public launch, Embark is one of just three companies (and the only startup) that has gained approval by the State of Nevada to begin testing trucks on public roads. You can see the Embark truck in action in this incredible video.

Maven Ventures led the Embark Seed round. I believe that autonomous vehicles will rival the internet as one the most transformative technologies of our lifetime. Maven was one of the earliest believers and investors in autonomous vehicle tech, starting with our seed investment in Cruise in 2014. Cruise sold to GM last year, as reported for more than $1B. Even with a massive exit, I knew this was still a nascent industry and there would be other valuable autonomous startups built in the coming years. I also saw an opportunity to leverage the knowledge and industry relationships I had built as a board observer at Cruise to help other autonomous vehicle startups achieve similar success.

I first learned of the Embark team through Cruise. CEO and co-founder Alex Rodrigues and his teammates were at the University of Waterloo, a hotbed of tech talent, and were highly sought-after recruits to join the Cruise team. Instead, they decided to drop out of school and launch their own company, which was accepted by YCombinator (the same accelerator program as Cruise). At YC, they built a prototype vehicle, a golf cart-style shuttle for large private grounds such as universities. We were instantly impressed by the founders’ work ethic, talent, and ability to deliver such a great product so quickly with a very small team.

We learned that their passionate, capable founding team already had many years of experience building autonomous technology. They showed us videos of the self-driving robots they had built for high-profile university competitions going back to when they were just 13. Alex also demonstrated a unique balance of youth and maturity, and of vision and practically, that is reminiscent of many of the Valley’s most successful CEOs. So, while we weren’t completely sold on their initial focus on the private shuttle market, we decided to lead their Seed round last March.

Our teams started working together very closely and, soon after our investment, we started discussing the broader market for autonomous vehicles and Alex’s other passions. It became clear that highway driving would be the most straightforward arena for autonomous operation, and the Embark team had been thinking a lot about the trucking industry. The $700B trucking and freight industry would likely be the first to deploy fully self-driving vehicles, even as early as 2018. In addition to a huge market opportunity, there was a massive need. There is currently a shortage of over 100K+ truck drivers nationally, and, with a workforce that is heavily weighted toward baby boomers, that shortage is only expected to grow as boomers retire. Moreover, there are a dozen deaths per day caused by accidents involving semi-trucks, many or all of which could be eliminated by computer-driven trucks. The more I learned, the more I identified with this important and inspiring vision. Soon after we got involved, we fully supported Alex’s decision to commit to trucking, and Embark as you know it today was born.

A lot has happened since then. While the Embark team was working under the radar, Otto launched, hired 90 engineers from Google, got a truck to deliver some beer, and sold to Uber for a reported $700M. This news further validated our thinking and the opportunity ahead of us, and comparatively, the Embark team has been able to accomplish their launch much more efficiently. They’re an incredible group of talented engineers, bringing together years of experience at organizations like SpaceX, Audi’s self-driving group, Stanford AI, and Carnegie Mellon.

From YC, to their combo garage-office which houses the Embark team and a 15,000 pound commercial truck, to their live tests in Nevada, there has been some incredible progress in one year. But Embark is just getting started. They still have much to accomplish before the entire country and world experience the full benefits of self-driving truck technology. Embark will be closing additional funding shortly and expanding the team. If you’re as excited as we are to be part of this incredible journey, where autonomous technology will improve and save lives, as well as help fill a massive need in the trucking industry, we hope you’ll join us on the “Big Blue” ride!

For more Embark news:

Embark aims for self-driving trucks on freeways -SFGate

Embark launches self-driving truck tech to ease driver fatigue on long highways-VentureBeat

Embark’s self-drving truck is ready to assist human drivers -TechCrunch

My Debate with George Arison, CEO of Shift, at Web Summit in Lisbon

My Debate with George Arison, CEO of Shift, at Web Summit in Lisbon

I was invited to speak at the Web Summit in Lisbon this week to debate George Arison on a hot topic: the arrival of truly autonomous vehicles. You can watch the debate here at 1hr. 24min. Maven Ventures has invested in three companies in the space, including Cruise Automation, which helped to launch the industry into mainstream conversations after its acquisition by General Motors.

While the buzz has certainly picked up, the autonomous vehicle market is still underhyped. Next to the Internet, it’s the most profound and transformative technology innovation in our lifetimes. Most people predict it will be 20 years or more until true, level 4 or level 5 autonomous vehicles will be on the roads. But it’s going to happen much sooner. As I shared on stage at the Web Summit this morning, here are the 10 reasons why I believe level 4 or 5 autonomy will be widespread within the next 5-10 years:

  1. Saving lives: over 1 million people die in car accidents each year around the world, with over 35,000 in the US alone. Autonomous vehicles will nearly eliminate these fatalities.
  2. Better for the environment: with fewer cars on the road, nearly all of them electric, pollution from cars will drastically decrease.
  3. Less congestion: our cities are locked-up with traffic congestion, making it tough to get around. Autonomous vehicles will decrease the traffic congestion with more predictable transit, fewer vehicles, and no need to find that elusive parking spot.
  4. More productive society: instead of sitting behind the wheel on increasingly lengthy daily commutes, we will be able to rest, work, and relax. This will increase productivity, while decreasing stress and road rage.
  5. Inclusive transit for everyone: autonomous vehicles will be safer for our aging population, allowing seniors to retain independence longer, as well as more accessible for blind, deaf, and other individuals who couldn’t otherwise drive.
  6. More affordable: the need for car ownership will be greatly reduced as more people take advantage of ride- and car-sharing, decreasing the amount of money spent on vehicles, insurance, registration, and maintenance.
  7. The technology is improving: the cost of hardware is dropping rapidly, so component pieces integral to autonomous driving such as LIDARs and cameras are more accessible. More engineers are developing expertise in related fields, creating better software and hardware.
  8. Governments are moving quickly: the Department of Transportation and President Obama have both stated that this is a priority, and the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration has already released its first policy updates.
  9. There’s so much money at stake: between Tesla, Google, General Motors/ Cruise, Apple, Uber, and many more companies, there are hundreds of billions of dollars in market opportunity up for grabs.
  10. It’s already happening: the Cruise team has autonomous vehicles on the road, Google has had fully autonomous cars all over Silicon Valley for years, Uber famously put self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, and the recently acquired Otto made a big splash with its first autonomous truck delivery. Not only is autonomous driving coming faster than most people think it’s already here.