Starsky Robotics ends remote truck experiment, shuts down operations

Starsky Robotics driver

Robotics co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher announced Thursday that the company’s
quest to build autonomous trucks was ending. In a Medium blog post,
Seltz-Axmacher said the company was ceasing operations, citing lack of investor
interest and the trucking recession as factors.

“Timing, more than anything else,
is what I think is to blame for our unfortunate fate,” he wrote. “Our approach,
I still believe, was the right one, but the space was too overwhelmed with the
unmet promise of AI to focus on a practical solution. As those breakthroughs
failed to appear, the downpour of investor interest became a drizzle.”

Seltz-Axmacher also said that the
technology IPOs last year hurt.

“It also didn’t help that last
year’s tech IPOs took a lot of energy out of the tech industry, and that
trucking has been in a recession for 18 or so months,” he said.

Founded three years ago, Starsky
was developing an autonomous remote-controlled truck. The idea was the vehicle
would drive highway miles in autonomous mode, and a driver in a remote location
would guide the vehicle through the final miles to its end destination.

In a 2017 interview with FreightWaves, Seltz-Axmacher described his ideal scenario: A “driver” sits in
a room and simultaneously monitors up to 18 to 20 trucks out on the road. Using
video cameras and vehicle controls such as a steering wheel, that driver is
able to take control of a vehicle if necessary through the seamless switch of a
vehicle control button. The driver will also drive the vehicle from the control
room during the “last mile” of deliveries. That means that while there is no
physical driver in the vehicle, a driver is in control.

“Which means we can provide a
better lifestyle for the driver,” Seltz-Axmacher explained. “They could service
different vehicles as those vehicles are getting on and off the highway.”

In the blog post detailing
the closing, Seltz-Axmacher went into detail on the issues facing the
autonomous space.

“There are too many problems with
the AV industry to detail here: the professorial pace at which most teams work,
the lack of tangible deployment milestones, the open secret that there isn’t a
robotaxi business model, etc. The biggest, however, is that supervised machine
learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence akin
to C-3PO, it’s a sophisticated pattern-matching tool,” he wrote.

Seltz-Axmacher said that today,
society is still “at least 10 years away from self-driving cars.”

Later, Seltz-Axmacher circled back
to the investor puzzle.

“Unfortunately, when investors cool
on a space, they generally cool on the entire space,” he wrote. “We also saw
that investors really didn’t like the business model of being the operator, and
that our heavy investment into safety didn’t translate for investors.”

FreightWaves first reported that
Starsky was in trouble in December 2019 when FreightWaves obtained an internal memo detailing the financial problems. The memo said that Embark, Cruise, Tesla, Nikola Motor and
Amazon were among the companies interested in buying Starsky.

None of those options materialized,
though, and Starksy was left with few choices.

On Feb. 24, it was learned that
mass layoffs had taken place, including most of the engineers and office
personnel. At the time, a small crew remained as Seltz-Axmacher continued to look for a buyer for the troubled startup.

According to data in Crunchbase,
Starsky had raised more than $20.3 million in funding, but unlike autonomous
competitors, it was not able to find additional funding and money ran out at
the end of January, Paul Schlegel, former senior vice president of Starsky,
told FreightWaves in February.

Crunchbase data shows that TuSimple has raised
around $298 million in the past six rounds of funding and self-driving startup has raised around $200 million in its past three rounds of funding. Ike has raised
$52 million in Series A funding, and Embark, Waymo and others have been able to
attract significant funding.

Last fall, Starsky quietly
downsized its over-the-road trucking operation, which at one point was said to include 33 trucks and 20 drivers.
In an email to drivers dated Dec. 4, Starsky stated that a significant downturn
in rates the past few months caused the trucking company “to operate at a loss.”