Embark went public in 2021 through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal. - Photo: Embark

Embark went public in 2021 through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal.

Photo: Embark

Autonomous-truck developer Embark Technology is laying off about 70% of its employees, shutting down its Southern California and Houston, Texas, offices, and may shut down altogether.

In a March 3 email to Embark employees that the company published on Medium, co-founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues explained, “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 said the company had been unable to “find a path forward in the face of these challenges,” explaining it had explored refining its existing plan, exploring alternative markets, and trying to find a buyer for the company.

The remaining 30% of Embark will begin winding down day-to-day operations, he said.

“Over the next handful of weeks, we will work closely with the Embark Board of Directors to evaluate our options, including selling assets, restructuring the company or shutting down completely.”

Embark went public in 2021 through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal. Its shares plunged 33% Monday following Rodriguez’ announcement. Shares have fallen 97% over the past 12 months, closing Monday at $2.56 after trading as high as $134 last April.

Tale of a Self-Driving Truck Startup

Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark, was inspired to launch Embark after blowing a tire on the interstate and waiting four hours for a tow. In that time, he said, “every single 18-wheeler that drove past had a sign on the back 'Drivers Wanted'. It was so clear there was a shortage of drivers.”

The company was founded in 2016 and unveiled its first prototype truck in 2017.

In the past couple of years, the company tackled a number of the questions people have about autonomous trucks in real-world operations, such as work-zone safety, combining autonomous on-highway operations with human-driven drayage trucks, a network of transfer points, maintenance, navigating in snow, and interacting with law enforcement.

In 2021, Embark rolled out a development program with major motor carriers. Just late last year, Embark announced it would hand over the first Embark-powered truck to Knight-Swift as part of the Truck Transfer Program. It also has announced deals with U.S. Xpress and DHL.

HDT has reached out to Knight-Swift and U.S. Xpress for comment.

Self-Driving Trucks: Harder Than They Look

Embark is the second autonomous-tech company in recent weeks to announce it’s been affected by the flow of investor funds drying up. Locomation, although it said it was not closing down, had to “reduce most of our non-engineering headcount in the face of economic headwinds,” according to CEO and Co-founder Çetin Meriçli.

If it goes under, Embark won’t be the first self-driving truck tech company to do so.

For instance, Starsky Robotics went belly-up in 2020. Stefan Seltz-Axmacher founded Starsky Robotics with the goal of the early adoption of Level 5 autonomous systems, moving freight without any human in the vehicle at all. But the company shut down after failing to secure additional needed funding. In an interview with HDT, Seltz-Axmacher talked about what happened and why he believes adoption of true self-driving truck technology may be harder than we think. "There's a massive difference in robotics between being able to make something work once and being able to work a hundred out of a hundred times," he said.

Otto, one of the earlier startups focused on self-driving trucks, sold to Uber in 2016, which later shut down its self-driving trucks division. Other companies, such as TuSimple and Aurora, have seen their shares plummet since going public.

Rodrigues told employees in his email, “I believe that solving autonomous trucking will one day be a huge benefit to society, and while Embark may not be there to see the vision through in its current form, I hope you know that your work made a difference in pushing the industry forward.”

Correction: The photo originally posted this story was not of an Embark truck. We apologize for the error.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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