MIT spin-off secures $ 8 million to advance autonomous freight trucks
Wyle said logistics centers around the world spend around $ 175 billion a year moving containers, and she’s betting that Venti can get a good chunk out of that by developing software to control autonomous freight trucks. In March, the company struck a deal to install autonomous vehicles at the Port of Singapore, one of the largest in the world. Trucks can automatically transport containers to the dock, where cranes can load them onto ships. Or they can pick up the containers as they are unloaded and move them to staging areas where they can be transferred to other ships.
There is huge potential: Wyle said the Port of Singapore currently uses around 1,250 such trucks. And that’s just one of the hundreds that could one day use autonomous trucks. The same technology could also be used to manage containers in rail yards, or to move equipment and supplies within large factories.
Co-founded in 2018 by MIT computer science professors Daniela Rus and Saman Amarasinghe, Venti started life with a focus on transporting people. For example, he deployed low-speed shuttles to a residential community in Guangzhou, China. But “I quickly decided this wasn’t the right place to start,” said Wyle, a serial entrepreneur with a doctorate from MIT in medical physics and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Instead, she decided that writing yard truck software was a safer, more lucrative market. Potential customers could see a quick and substantial payoff as they replaced human drivers.
“Because they’re robots, they don’t take a cigarette break, they don’t come home late, they don’t go to the bathroom,” Wyle said. There is also less risk of injury if something goes wrong.
“With moving goods as opposed to moving people, the consequences of an accident are much less,” she said.
There is always a risk of collision with human workers, but Wyle said the Venti system uses vehicles that don’t move more than 30 miles per hour. The trucks, built for Venti by the Dutch company Terberg, are covered with sensors capable of detecting obstacles and applying the brakes. “We bathe the environment in various sensors and don’t have blind spots,” Wyle said. “We’re not going to touch anything.”
Rian Whitton, senior analyst at ABI Research, said Venti is tapping into a largely neglected market. “Almost all of the money … was spent on self-driving cars and passenger vehicles,” said Whitton. “And yet the actual commercial viability of these business ventures is actually very low at the present time.”
As a result, Whitton said, companies are turning to less difficult jobs like development. warehouse robots, automated forklifts or yard trucks, also known as tugs. “The challenges of self-driving cars are an order of magnitude more difficult than using a simple pallet stacker or tug,” he said.
But Venti can expect stiff competition from companies like Colorado-based Outrider, which has raised $ 118 million to develop its own line of automated garden trucks. The startup is also facing another spin-off from MIT called ISEE, which is backed by global shipping giant Maersk.