’Unable to identify a path forward’

Self-driving trucking firm started by former engineering students now winding down operations

By Brian Caldwell Faculty of Engineering

Sixteen months after soaring into the public realm with a market capitalization of more than US $5 billion, an autonomous trucking company launched by two former Waterloo Engineering students has returned to earth with a thud.

Alex Rodrigues, co-founder and CEO of Embark Technology Inc., told employees of the San Francisco-based company in an emotional email last week that it was laying off 70 per cent of its workforce and preparing to wind down operations.

"The last nine months have been tough for the autonomous trucking industry, and for Embark - the capital markets have turned their backs on pre-revenue companies, just as slipping manufacturer timelines have delayed the prospect of scaled commercial deployment," he wrote.

"Unfortunately, after thoroughly evaluating all alternatives, we have been unable to identify a path forward for the business in its current form."

Rodrigues and Brandon Moak, his friend and classmate in the mechatronics engineering program at Waterloo, left school for Silicon Valley in 2016 with ambitious plans and an autonomous golf cart they had built in the back of a pickup truck.

Around the ring road in a golf cart

Before leaving, the duo made a splash by driving then-president Feridun Hamdullahpur around the ring road in the cart. A photo of that event was prominently displayed inside the front doors of their offices to remind them where Embark began.

The future looked bright when Embark went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the fall of 2021 through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company called Northern Genesis II, which was headed by Waterloo Engineering alumnus Ian Robertson (BASc ’02).

Rodrigues and Moak, the chief technology officer, each held shares that made them worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Their vision of fleets of trucks paying per-mile fees for proprietary software to haul freight long distances on major highways - with hubs set up to move trailers into cities with human drivers - attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in backing to try to commercialize the technology.

But in his email to employees , Rodrigues said the company was unable to carry on after examining all of its options, including looking for a buyer. He took personal responsibility for the failure.

Sorry we ’weren’t able to find a way’

"Although there are many external things that we wish had gone differently, ultimately this outcome is my responsibility," he wrote.

"I’m sorry that myself and Brandon weren’t able to find a way. You are an amazing team and it has been the highlight of my life to get to work with all of you. This is not a reflection on you, but rather the nature of attempting something that has never been done before is that it is risky and even with incredible amounts of hard work, creativity and passion (which this team certainly has in spades!) success is not guaranteed."

Rodrigues said they will now work with the board of directors to evaluate options including selling off assets, restructuring the company or shutting down completely.

He also told employees he still believes autonomous trucking - which Embark touted as cheaper, faster, safer and more environmentally friendly than human drivers - "will one day be a huge benefit to society."

Embark is the latest in a string of companies in the autonomous trucking space to struggle or close.

Photo: Alex Rodrigues, left, and Brandon Moak of Embark Technology Inc.