Self-driving cars are still years away from being practical. So autonomous-vehicle startup Venti Technologies isn’t waiting around. Venti, based in Boston, is targeting the far less glamorous market for “yard trucks” — the tugboat-like vehicles that shuffle cargo inside seaports, rail yards, and factories.
“This is real now,” said chief executive Heidi Wyle. “There is real money here.”
Venture capitalists agree. Venti just raised $8 million in a funding round led by LDV Partners of Palo Alto and Alpha JWC Ventures of Indonesia to finance a big effort in Singapore.
Wyle said that the world’s logistics hubs spend about $175 billion a year to move containers around, and she’s betting that Venti can peel off a sizable sliver of it, by developing software to control self-driving merchandise trucks. In March, the company scored a deal to install self-driving vehicles at the Port of Singapore, one of the world’s largest. The trucks can automatically transport containers to dockside, where cranes can load them onto ships. Or they can pick up containers as they’re unloaded, and move them to staging areas where they can be transferred to other ships.
There’s a huge potential upside: Wyle said that the Singapore port presently uses about 1,250 such trucks. And that’s just one seaport out of hundreds that could someday use autonomous trucks. The same technology could also be used to manage containers in railyards, or to shift equipment and supplies inside large factories.
Cofounded in 2018 by MIT computer science professors Daniela Rus and Saman Amarasinghe, Venti began its life with a focus on transporting people. For instance, it deployed some low-speed people movers in a residential community in Guangzhou, China. But “I soon decided it wasn’t the right place to start,” said Wyle, a serial entrepreneur with an MIT doctorate in medical physics and a Harvard Business School MBA.
Instead, she decided that writing software for yard trucks was a safer and more lucrative market. Potential customers could see a quick and substantial payoff, as they replaced human drivers.
“Because these are robots, they don’t take smoke breaks, they don’t come in late, they don’t go to the bathroom,” Wyle said. There’s also less risk of injury if something goes wrong.
“With moving goods as opposed to moving people, the consequences of an accident are way less,” she said.
There’s still the danger of colliding with human workers, but Wyle said the Venti system uses vehicles that move at no more than 30 miles per hour. The trucks, built for Venti by the Dutch company Terberg, are covered in sensors that can detect obstacles and apply the brakes. “We bathe the environment in various sensors, and have no blind spots,” Wyle said. “We’re not going to hit anything.”
Rian Whitton a principal analyst at ABI Research, said that Venti is tapping a market that’s been largely neglected. “Almost all the money ... has been focused on autonomous cars and passenger vehicles,” Whitton said. “And yet the actual commercial viability of those business ventures is actually very poor at present.”
As a result, Whitton said, businesses are turning to less-challenging jobs like developing warehouse robots, automated forklifts, or yard trucks, also called tugs. “The challenges of self-driving cars are an order of magnitude more difficult than operating a simple pallet stacker or a tug,” he said.
But Venti can expect lively competition from companies like Colorado-based Outrider, which has raised $118 million to develop its own line of automated yard trucks. The startup is also facing off against another MIT spinoff called ISEE, which is backed by the giant global shipping company Maersk.