Autonomous vehicle technology may no longer be the fuel powering the hype machine. But companies applying the technology to agriculture, commercial and logistics applications are still attracting venture capital.
Take Outrider, a Golden, Colorado startup developing autonomous electric yard trucks, for example.
Distribution yards are the nerve center of the supply chain. It's where all those goods (like those ordered from Amazon and other e-commerce businesses) make the transition from long-haul trucks to warehouses, and eventually to the consumer. Workers today use diesel-powered yard trucks to move trailers filled with goods around the yard, as well as to and from loading docks.
Outrider has developed an autonomous system that includes an electric yard truck, software to manage the operations and site infrastructure. While humans may still be needed at the distribution yard, the autonomous system handles the bulk of the work, including hitching and unhitching trailers, connecting and disconnecting trailer brake lines and monitoring trailer locations.
The revenue potential from this system — there are some 400,000 distribution yards in the U.S. alone — has caught the attention of a number of investors. Outrider recently closed a $73 million Series C round led by FM Capital and attracted new investors Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Nvidia's venture capital group, NVentures. New investors B37 Ventures, Lineage Ventures, Presidio Ventures (the venture arm of Sumitomo Corporation) and ROBO Global Ventures also joined along with existing backers Koch Disruptive Technologies and New Enterprise Associates.
Outrider has raised $191 million since its founding in 2017 under the name Azevtec.
The company has made some progress since its last raise in fall 2020. Outrider founder and CEO Andrew Smith told TechCrunch that the yard trucks have new hardware designed to handle harsh environments, including robotic arms. Outrider has 20 autonomous systems in use at customer sites and its test facility as the company finishes the final capabilities and proprietary safety mechanisms of the system, Smith said.
These final tweaks to the system will wrap up in 2023, he added. From there the focus will be launching commercial operations with its customers, which includes Georgia Pacific and other unnamed companies that have invested in joint product testing and pilot operations since 2019. Smith said Outrider's customers represent more than 20% of all yard trucks operating in North America.
The new funds will be used to hire in the U.S. and internationally (beyond its 175-person workforce) and transition from testing and validation to commercial operations at scale, Smith said.
"It's one thing to have a vehicle driving autonomously, it's another thing to create a truly industrial system that can operate in a harsh environment over multiple years of time, 20 to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Smith said." The productization of the system and the rolling in of these final capabilities will allow us to then scale to thousands of systems operating on Outrider software over the next few years."