Driverless truck company Ike today announced that it’s been acquired by Nuro, the autonomous delivery vehicle startup, for an undisclosed amount. Ike says it’s already begun work on integration of its 55 employees and technology and that joining forces with Nuro will allow it to “move faster on an ambitious mission to make people’s lives better with automated vehicles.”
“Our companies already have a lot in common — shared values, complementary expertise, and technology with the same DNA,” Ike wrote in a blog post. “Our teams have always collaborated closely, and the time is now right to join forces formally and accelerate our progress … After years of hard work to fulfill the promise of automated vehicles, we expect 2021 to be an important moment for Nuro and for the world. We are thrilled to start this next chapter of Ike’s journey and help deliver on a shared mission, together.”
Some experts predict the coronavirus outbreak will hasten the adoption of driverless vehicles for delivery. A study published by CarGurus found that 39% of people don’t plan to use human-driven ride-sharing services post-pandemic for fear of insufficient sanitation. Despite driverless cars’ need for regular disinfection and the public’s misgivings about their general safety, they promise to minimize the risk of spreading disease because they inherently limit driver-rider contact.
Ike, a self-driving truck startup founded by former Apple, Google, and Uber Advanced Technologies Group engineers, previously raised $52 million in venture capital in a February 2019 series A led by Bain Capital Ventures. The company’s namesake — President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the interstate system he helped create with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act — wasn’t the only noteworthy thing about the company. Rather than develop a driverless solution in-house, it licensed Nuro‘s localization, perception, prediction, and planning software. (Nuro already had a small stake in Ike.) And Ike refrained from making bold pronouncements about its service. While it tested self-driving trucks on public California roads in 2019, they had human safety drivers behind the wheel, and they didn’t operate autonomously anywhere but on the highway.
From the outside looking in, Ike certainly had the chops to succeed in a market predicted to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade. Ike cofounders Jur van den Berg and Nancy Sun are both veterans of Apple’s special projects group and Otto, an autonomous trucking startup acquired (and later shuttered) by Uber. Founding partner Alden Woodrow, for his part, was product lead of Google X’s Makani project, which sought to develop kites that produce electricity by harnessing wind energy, and he served as a group product manager at Uber’s self-driving truck program. (Sun, van den Berg, and Woodrow will join Nuro’s executive ranks.)
Ike reached agreements this fall with DHL, Ryder, and NFI to provide its technology to fleets. But Ike had competition in spades, like Pronto.ai and TuSimple, a three-year-old autonomous truck company with autonomous vehicles operating in Arizona, California, and China. There’s also venture-backed Swedish driverless car company Einride as well as Aurora and Embark, which integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt semis and which recently launched a pilot with Amazon to haul cargo. Incumbent Waymo is also investing heavily in Waymo Via, its self-driving freight-hauling service, as the Alphabet-backed venture seeks to carve out a slice of the transportation and logistics segment.
The pandemic and its effects, including testing delays, has resulted in consolidation, tabled or canceled launches, and shakeups across the autonomous transportation industry. Ford pushed the unveiling of its self-driving service from 2021 to 2022; Waymo CEO John Krafcik told the New York Times the pandemic delayed work by at least two months; and Amazon acquired driverless car startup Zoox for $1.3 billion. According to Boston Consulting Group managing director Brian Collie, broad commercialization of AVs won’t happen before 2025 or 2026 — at least three years later than originally anticipated.
Nuro, fortunately, is flush with cash. The Mountain View, California-based company, which was cofounded in 2016 by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, both veterans of the secretive Google self-driving car project that eventually spun out as Waymo, nabbed $940 million in a February 2019 venture round led by Softbank’s Vision Fund and $500 million in a subsequent round in November. The latter valued Nuro at north of $5 billion.
“We have watched as Ike developed not just one of the most rigorous safety-first and systems-based approaches to self-driving development, but also a team that is widely regarded as one of the brightest in our field. The combination of the two, along with the ability to readily integrate some of their core technology (like their world-class virtual simulation tool), is what made the opportunity to have them join us a natural fit.,” Nuro president and cofounder Dave Ferguson said in a statement. “We look forward to all we’ll be able to accomplish together, knowing that our horizon of possible applications has been expanded with the addition of the Ike team and their expertise. And we are thrilled to have them join us in our collective mission.”
In April, Nuro, which has over 600 employees, secured a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to test driverless delivery vehicles on public roads within a portion of the San Francisco Bay Area. That followed the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) decision in February to grant the company an autonomous vehicle exemption that allowed Nuro to pilot its custom-designed R2 delivery vehicles on roads without certain equipment required for passenger vehicles.
For the better part of a year, Nuro’s fleet of Toyota Prius vehicles in Houston, Texas has been making deliveries to consumers from various partners, including Kroger, Domino’s, and Walmart. The company has deployed over 75 delivery vehicles to date, a mix of self-driving Priuses and R2s.