by Aaron Jacobson
Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) used to be something that we only imagined as part of a distant future. However, the cultural zeitgeist of the past decade indicates that AVs have captured not only our imagination but also a significant amount of our interest and attention. Not only do AVs stand to make a major impact on the cost and convenience of our daily transportation–they also have a huge potential to save lives. According to the NHTSA, 7,133 people died in motor vehicle-related crashes in the U.S. in 2017, and 94% of serious crashes are due to human error.
At NEA, we are enthusiastic about a future filled with safe AVs (especially those of us commuting up and down Highway 280 in The Bay Area), but when it comes to investing in frontier technology, capital intensity can go from being a million-dollar question to a billion-dollar one. According to The Information, a group of 30 AV companies have collectively spent at least $16 billion on developing fully self-driving cars over the past few years and have yet to generate meaningful revenue. Given the myriad of operating environments and conditions in the real world, we expect such spend will be required for years—if not decades—to solve the challenges required for AVs to operate without drivers under enough conditions for real-world deployment. Furthermore, there are numerous other obstacles to overcome for AV deployment, such as legalities, insurance, bureaucracy, and consumer acceptance.
The key for startups bringing the autonomous revolution of tomorrow into the world today is to focus on narrower “Goldilocks” problems. If a company selects a problem that is too difficult to automate—the AI powering the solution will fail too often. The converse is selecting too easy of a problem resulting in no competitive moat. If a company is able to choose a problem that is “just right,” this opens the doors to a high-value, defensible product that can be developed on a venture capital budget and timeline. To find these “Goldilocks” opportunities we’ve focused on autonomous solutions in constrained environments, such as distribution centers, construction sites, farms, and mines. This thesis led to our investments in Berkshire Grey, which builds solutions to automate fulfillment in retail, ecommerce, and logistics; and Built Robotics, which upgrades traditional construction equipment with AI guidance to enable autonomous operation.
Today, we are excited to announce the newest member of NEA’s autonomous family, Outrider. Outrider is the first company exclusively focused on automating all aspects of yard operations for logistics hubs. Visit any yard and you’ll see a frenzied game of Tetris being played by drivers in spot trucks moving trailers back and forth between staging areas and docking bays. It should be no surprise that the highly repetitive nature of the job in harsh operating environments results in high driver turnover. Outrider solves this and other challenges by transforming yard trucks with off-the-shelf hardware and layering on autonomy software capable of advanced tasks such as: yard navigation, hazard avoidance, trailer connection, and move optimization. Their solution delivers improved efficiency, lower costs, and enhanced safety. In addition, the Outrider System is deployed with electric vehicles, allowing companies to minimize fuel and maintenance costs while also significantly reducing carbon emissions.
This multifaceted value proposition has been resonating with customers. Outrider currently has vehicles deployed with multiple Fortune 200 organizations and a rapidly growing pipeline of others in wait. They’ve already identified more than a hundred million dollars in opportunity in a multibillion dollar market based on more than 50,000 yard trucks in operation in North America alone.
And of course, Outrider would not have achieved such strong customer momentum without a stellar team. The CEO, Andrew Smith, is a proven, charismatic entrepreneur committed to bringing environmentally beneficial technologies to market. The first company he built provided aerodynamic fairings to the over-the-road trucking industry, saving customers tens of millions of dollars of fuel annually. The technical bench he’s assembled is unmatched with a founding engineering team that has decades of experience at Lockheed Martin developing autonomous solutions for the military. The chaos of a distribution center yard pales in comparison to the environments they’ve seen!
We are thrilled to partner with Andrew and the Outrider team alongside our co-investors 8VC and Koch Disruptive Technologies to bring transformative technology to automate yard operations. What was once the future is now the present, and there is no better team to drive the logistics chapter of the autonomous revolution.