Ike, a self-driving trucking company, was established by veterans from Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s Autonomous driving truck program, Google, and Apple.
The company recently made headway after raising its Series A round led by Bain Capital Ventures.
Other companies including Neo, Basis Set Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and Redpoint Ventures also took part in the financing exercise to help Ike achieve its goals.
Ajay Agarwal, a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, also joined Ike’s board of directors following the funding round.
Ike’s financing round will assist the startup in growing its 30-person team as it pushes forward with its goal to create a commercial product, primarily at scale.
Even though the mission sounds more like other self-driving car startups, that’s where the similarity ends.
The aim of Alden Woodrow, Nancy Sun, and Jur van den Berg, Ike’s three founders, is not to have the first-ever autonomous driving trucks.
It is a declaration that is in contrast with a cutthroat and promising industry that is mostly described as being in a tight race.
The founders were in the heady days of both 2016 and 2017, not only when the term sheets were raining down but also when large technology companies and automakers were acquiring startups.
Both Nancy Sun and Van den Berg worked at Apple’s special projects group, especially when they left for Otto, a self-driving trucking company that was acquired by Uber back in 2016.
Woodrow, the former product head of Google X’s Makani project, also joined Uber ATG by February 2017 as the product manager of its autonomous driving truck program.
By 2018, Otto’s founders had left ride-hailing company Uber, and the autonomous driving trucks initiative dropped.
Van den Berg, Woodrow, and Sun left Uber by spring of 2018 in a bid to establish Ike.
“The temptation when you’re working on this technology — because there’s so much potential and because there’s so much excitement for it — especially for small companies in the early stages, is to try and hack something together and try to get up and running really quickly,” Alden Woodrow, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Ike told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
According to Nancy Sun, who apart from being Ike’s co-founder is the company’s chief engineer, that was not what Ike is doing.
Instead, he said that the startup is leveraging a systems engineering technique and combining it with some agility from Silicon Valley.
Ike engineers are not focused on rapidly creating and integrating autonomous driving sensors and software for getting on the road.
The company said that it’s mainly focused on a systems-based philosophy.
Ike is also working on identifying the architecture and design first before creating the foundation.
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It is committed to a whole system that takes into account everything in the autonomous driving truck, from its alternators, steering column, and wire harnesses to durable sensors that are designed specifically for the highway, deep learning and computer vision that enables it to view and understand its surroundings as well as make the right decisions by relying on such information.
The systems approach also constitutes appropriate validation, especially before any tests are conducted on public roads.
What this means is that the self-driving trucks from Ike will be introduced after others.
However, the company’s founders are convinced that once the trucks are rolled out at scale, it will be a valuable and validated product that will not require the need for regular tweaks.
According to Sun, there are existing trade-offs between all these functional areas. “That’s why we need to get it right from a systems perspective and not over-rely on any one view.”
The systems approach marks a reflection of wider changes, especially within the industry that appears to have sobered up in recent times.
Most of the companies, even those that are considered to be “ahead” in the race for deploying self-driving cars, have realized that the issue is more difficult than they anticipated.
The times of time-lapsed autonomous driving demos, bold claims and videos have significantly been replaced with a more silent let’s-get-to-work-now technique.
Ike’s Plan for Trucks
Ike, which gets its name after President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the United States’ interstate system he assisted in creating after signing the Federal Aid Highway Act, is currently trying to develop a system that enables trucks to drive reliably and safely on the highway without the need for a human driver.
Nonetheless, that does not mean that human drivers are no longer needed under the company’s model.
The company wants its trucks to only drive on highways autonomously.
From that point, human drivers would then transport the loads in between the highways.
Ike sets itself apart from other autonomous driving truck companies in many other ways too, primarily its resolution to license autonomous delivery firm Nuro’s car software stack.
Woodrow explained that Nuro’s autonomous car stack copy was a “hard fork.”
This means that Ike does not need a continuing technical link with the company.
Nuro has a minority shareholding in Ike.
Alternatively, Ike acquired a copy of various relevant items that Nuro built like the core infrastructure (including simulation, maps, and data logging), the autonomous software stack, and several hardware designs.
“We’re making a lot of progress today on hardware, software, systems engineering without driving trucks on the road,” Woodrow said. “That’s partly because of the team we’ve assembled, but it’s also due to the licensing agreement with Nuro that has given us a set of really robust tools.”
Ike will not remain off the road for a long time, as it plans to start conducting tests for its autonomous driving trucks featuring human safety drivers who will be behind the wheel on various public roads in 2019.
Even so, the founders of Ike are still not ready or decided on where the company will begin commercial deployment first.
“Because our road map is measured in years, we’ve got some time to get that right,” Woodrow said.