From Waterloo to world-beaters? How Embark’s Canadian founders are building an autonomous trucking success story in Silicon Valley

Embark Trucks Inc. has designs on revolutionizing the automotive trucking sector with a young team, ambitious goals for automation and a freshly inked SPAC merger to finance the road to driverless transport

As far as 20-something CEOs go, Alex Rodrigues is the definition of calm under pressure.

Sitting in his sunny San Francisco apartment, Rodrigues is serene as he talks with Electric Autonomy Canada about going to university in Ontario, how his interest in robots began in high school in Calgary and what he thinks the future of autonomous driving looks like.

It’s easy to forget that you’re chatting with the head of an autonomous driving technology company with a multi-billion dollar valuation. Embark Trucks Inc. is looking to transform the world of trucking by offering an agnostic platform for autonomous driving software that can one day be baked into all types of trucks — diesel, hydrogen or electric — across the continent.

Embark’s model is based on deep collaboration with its partners — currently it is working with four heavy-duty OEMs to make sure its technology can be embedded into their trucks. Those four OEMs account for 98 per cent of trucks sold in the U.S. market today.

And yet, it’s that elephant-in-the-room question that keeps permeating the interview: With most of his cohort still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives — not to mention just trying to figure out how to make rent — how is 25-year-old Rodrigues building and running an autonomous empire, in a US$700-billion-per-year industry, with such aplomb?

“The Canadian perspective is to take it all in and keep it all in perspective, right? Every year you look back at the previous year, and it’s just a totally different company, so that’s kind of wild. But day to day, we focus on building the tech, on hiring great people and on getting it done,” muses Rodrigues.

Opportunity of the decade

“I’ve always thought automation is sort of that intersection between incredibly cool technology and the opportunity to really impact people’s daily lives. I do think this is one of the most interesting and exciting opportunities that anyone really has a chance to tackle this decade.”

And tackling it he is. Rodrigues and his team have catapulted from anonymity — just another Silicon Valley start-up — to a globally recognized corporation projected to revolutionize the way we all get our goods. They have also put a bow on their rise to fame by signing a go-public merger with Special Purpose Acquisition Company Northern Genesis II in June 2021, with US$614-million cash proceeds anticipated from the transaction.

So, how does it feel to have the weight of the supply chain, the responsibility for the safety of hundreds of millions of road users across North America and the prospect of taking your company public sitting on your shoulders?

That’s just another Tuesday in the Embark universe.

When you combine the executive team’s ages, their work ethic and Rodrigues’ perspective on the whirl of activity around Embark, you can’t help but feel like the company — and the industry — is on the precipice of an unparalleled disruption.

Embark’s cofounders are taking a bet on the dream that, by the time they are 35, the transportation industry will be unrecognizable from what it is today. And they want to be in the driver’s seat of making that vision a reality.

So, when their opportunity came knocking — even perhaps three decades before the conventions of society say it’s “normal” to see their level of success — they grabbed it with both hands and put their foot down on the accelerator.

How it all began

Let’s rewind to 2015.

Rodrigues and his friend (now business partner), Brandon Moak, were two of hundreds of second-year mechatronic engineering students at the University of Waterloo in southern Ontario. Both had an affinity for robotics, came from entrepreneurial families and were hungry for a challenge. It was clear even from those early days that they made a formidable alliance in the robotics world.

We built the first self-driving vehicle to run on public roads in Canada, which was an electric golf cart,” recalls Rodrigues. “One of the interesting sort of pieces of the backstory is, at the time, there was no regulatory framework for driverless vehicles in Canada.”

So, not open to having Marvin’s — the name of their golf cart — chance at earning an A stymied by something like the Highway Act, Rodrigues and Moak also worked out a deal with the university to satisfy their proof of engineering requirement: a test of Marvin’s driverless technology on a public road — one of the first ever conducted in Canada.

“We ran it in summer, around ring road at Waterloo with me and the [university] president in the two passenger seats, which was pretty fun. The reason we were able to run it on public roads is we coordinated directly with the campus police at Waterloo. We were able to run it on campus roads because they were under their jurisdiction.”

It was that first ride, the first “framework” of how to run an autonomous vehicle on a public road, says Rodrigues, that helped to inform the provincial rules that were announced later that year.

It was Rodrigues and Moak’s first taste of having one of their vehicles not only be a national “first,” but also one that helped to inform and shape policy. The pair left their program at Waterloo shortly afterward to take a gamble on themselves and set up their own autonomous driving company.

They were 19.

Embarking on Embark

A year after leaving Waterloo, in the summer of 2016, Rodrigues and Moak relocated to California, bought their first truck and were shortly thereafter to be found celebrating a landmark North American first: a coast-to-coast autonomous truck drive. Per regulatory requirements to test autonomous driving features, Embark’s truck had a safety driver at the wheel during the entire 3,680km journey from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, FL., but the truck was operated by its self-driving platform.

It was official: With that momentous crossing, Embark had graduated from a dream to a growing concern.

The industry was talking and suddenly major players in the transportation sector — Bison Transport, Knight Transportation and Werner Enterprises, to name a few — were knocking on Embark’s door asking for custom autonomous driving solutions for their fleets.

“We got a lot of outreach specifically from trucking companies in mining, but also in long haul. As we got to know some of those companies that was really where, I think, we saw this as a really unique opportunity,” says Rodrigues. “The more that I learned about their problems the more I thought that what we were doing was a really good fit.”

It is now possible Embark holds a profoundly lucrative solution to an industry-wide problem. Data from the American Transportation Research Institute says a human driver costs trucking companies US$1.76, per mile. Embark claims their autonomous, driverless technology will cost just US$0.96 per mile.

In a US$700-billion-per-year industry, that equates to billions in savings for their partners.

Winning investor attention

Rodrigues credits Embark’s meteoric rise with that first decision to headquarter out of California, even if it meant walking away from a made-in-Canada success story.

“There’s a lot of interesting talent in Canada. I think there are a few clusters of really high quality talent,” says Rodrigues. “[But] the ability to raise money is like an order of magnitude different.”

It took a move to San Francisco to capture investors’ attention and take Embark seriously as a company. Rodrigues is quick to point out that a “surprising” portion of Embark’s venture capital comes from Canadian investors.

And once Embark got backing from “Sequoia and Tiger and other big U.S. tech names,” says Rodrigues, the Canadian funds became “willing to invest more — I would say probably more easily.”

And invest they have. Embark’s merger with Northern Genesis II, valued at US$4.55 billion and which still requires shareholder approval, will fund its plans through the next critical stages of development, including on-road pilot testing of their technology, safety trials and in-depth “smartening up” of their autonomous driving systems. These activities will be piloted on a handful of semi trucks Embark owns and will, the company hopes, result in broadened route options and driverless technology that can handle hazards like emergency vehicles, mechanical failures, blown tires and emergency manoeuvres.

It’s not completely autonomous, but it’s a critical milestone that, if it can be achieved, may be the point of no return for an industry pivot to self-driving.

What is “autonomous,” really?

To understand what Embark is offering the transportation industry, a few things need to be made clear. One of the most important is the definition of “autonomous.”

There are six levels of automation ranging from Level 0 (no automation at all) to Level 5 (full automation).

In the passenger car world — where much of the public bandwidth is focused — autonomous is a commonly misused term. What exists in passenger vehicles is actually “driver-assisted” technology. The automated systems in the vehicle are able to take control in specific situations (parallel parking or adaptive cruise control), but the driver is still required for many or most of the functions. There are no passenger vehicles sold that are more than Level 3 autonomous.

At Embark the goal is to reach Level 4 commercial automation — “driver out” in company speak — by 2024, with the first and last mile from the depots to the highway being driven remotely by human operators.

In terms of industry perspective on whether or not it’s a realistic goal, in 2018 the International Council on Clean Transportation released a study on autonomous trucking that read, in part “Level 3 automation capabilities are most likely to come within a decade for heavy trucks…The International Transport Forum (ITF, 2015) predicts that Level 4 trucking on highways could be available before 2030.”

So, if Embark is hoping to achieve Level 4 autonomous driving in the next three years, it’s an aggressive target.

This year the company is focusing on testing its autonomous technology in inclement weather (minus snow) and navigating road construction — all with driver in. Partners, including heavy-hitters Amazon and Hewlett-Packard Development Co., will help test and pilot the drills.

Embark has broken down the issue of autonomous driving into 16 task modules that its technology needs to learn — things like lane changes, night driving and mechanical failures. By Embark’s account, things are progressing well, with the company saying it has completed 11 out of the 16 tasks, which puts it in the first tier of autonomous driving leaders.

No other companies have yet managed to successfully solve and pilot the remaining five modules autonomously: pulling over to safety, emergency vehicle interactions, evasive maneuvers, inspections and blown tires or mechanical failures.

“I think the first deployments will be very soon,” says Rodrigues. “We expect that we’ll have the four checkmarks: commercially viable, moving real freight inside our partner carriers networks, doing so at scale and without a safety driver. So those four criteria, I think, will be hit by 2024. And then you’ll see there certainly will be very fast scaling.”

Embark’s edge

What makes the road slightly easier for Embark to meet that scale target is that it has concentrated its efforts on long-haul usage applications for autonomous technology and specifically those drives that happen on highways.

“The interstate highway system is always limited-access the whole way across,” explains Rodrigues. Essentially that means the highways in the U.S., unlike in Canada, never transition at any point into non-highway roads — think how the Trans-Canada highway turns into 16th Ave in Calgary.

“That’s just like a small nuance between the U.S. and Canada,” continues Rodrigues. “Only it’s pretty important.”

That nuance is one of the reasons Embark is cautious about moving its autonomous technology into service north of the 49th parallel. That Canada’s highways are not as segregated from urban traffic as they are in the U.S. is not an insurmountable challenge — and Rodrigues says the company is keen to support autonomous commercial transport in Canada — but it’s an added layer of complication the company doesn’t feel it needs to take on right now. Trying to crack the case on urban autonomous driving with so many on- and off-road hazards that even going a city block in a driverless vehicle becomes a Herculean effort is not where Embark thinks it can make the most impact.

Walk before you run, as they say.

Embark’s goal — what Rodrigues and his team believe will set them apart in the market — is to be the first company to have commercially available, fully autonomous driving technology for highway transport driving in the U.S. sunbelt.

Map technology a defining ingredient

When you are talking about teaching a 40-tonne truck how to drive itself through inclement weather, tens of thousands of road hazards and troubleshoot its potential mechanical issues to boot, it’s hard to imagine there is a challenge more daunting.

And yet, says Rodrigues, the most arduous task for Embark is not actually anything to do with the physical trucks themselves. It’s managing the literal roadmap for autonomy.

“Certainly one of the toughest problems has been something we call Vision Map Fusion,” explains Rodrigues about Embark’s “unique” solution to mapping out 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of ever-changing road for a single route.

“The default approach in cities is to build these extremely highly detailed maps. From those maps, you’re localizing the truck and then you get all the rest of the information just by looking it up,” explains Rodrigues. The problem, he says, with this approach for a highway driving application is that when the autonomous truck encounters changes to the environment that are different from a pre-programmed and highly detailed map, there isn’t an alternate highway route option.

Vision Map Fusion is a combination of pre-programming and on-the-ground data gathering. First, Embark uploads a route map, but it sieves out the specific details of the environment along the route. When the truck is on the road its sensors are able to simultaneously match the pre-programmed big picture and also fill in the specific details of the surrounding area in real time.

“It’s a challenging thing to build that compromise where you have the data, but you’re also dealing with the changes on the highway as they come,” says Rodrigues of Embark’s unique ingredient to its secret sauce. The architecture of the company is built around Vision Map Fusion and years of work have gone into honing the program.

“It’s certainly one of the areas where we’ve really had to cut new ground to make something that’s going to work really well for for highways.”

Not done yet

Rodrigues and the Embark team know they and the industry still have a long way to go before autonomous trucking becomes a given and not a novelty.

The company is now moving from solving their bread-and-butter “engineering problems” with respect to even getting autonomous technology working on trucks, to anticipating the needs of fleet operators for down the road when the technology is being widely used.

One of the newest products Embark is offering in this regard is Guardian. It’s an interface that will allow fleet managers to track and supervise their trucks as they are on their routes, giving insight into critical information like vehicle wellness, timing and fuel efficiency.

“We expect this to also become a tool that’s used by shippers and even by governments to be able to track sort of their slice of what they need to know about their freight,” says Rodrigues. He predicts stakeholder interest in transportation and the supply chain is only going to continue to explode as the world recalibrates after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a company like Embark, it means coming of age at an ideal moment when policy makers, industry and the public are open to a new way of doing things.

“There’s certainly a mix of good luck that comes with having worked on this for a very long time,” says Rodrigues. “You do have to keep innovating if you want to stay at the front of the pack. Everyone is incredibly excited about Embark and the opportunity that that we have here.”