From AVs to optimized deliveries — and celebrating its next chapter with Gopuff
by Debjit Mukerji, Partner, Next47
Three years ago, the autonomous vehicle (AV) space was on fire. Representing one of the most exciting applications of near-generalized artificial intelligence, self-driving had become a magnet for brains and bucks. Venture capital firms, auto OEMs and technology giants were excited to the tune of billions of investment dollars. AV companies attracted some of the best AI, robotics and systems engineering talent in the world. Optimism abounded that performance thresholds and regulatory safety standards would be met quickly. Commercial robotaxi and trucking operations were envisioned by many to be widespread by 2022, with leading companies setting ambitious pilot deployment targets ahead of that.
Most AV startups were laser-focused on the most pressing problem: solving single vehicle autonomy. The challenge of getting an individual car to become self-driving — “seeing, thinking, deciding and acting” on its own — was daunting. It required major advances in sensing, perception and control software, map data collection and ultra-realistic digital simulations.
Against this backdrop a handful of companies began to look one step further, and with business in mind. Assuming individual self-driving vehicles “worked” — how should those autonomous agents be coordinated commercially? In the case of robotaxi fleets for example, this translated into a slew of complex operational questions including how AVs would interact in hybrid mode with human drivers, where they would be pre-positioned, where they would be dispatched and on what types of rides (single or pooled), what types of traffic and routes to avoid to maximize safety, and how ETAs would be calculated, pricing structured and resources allocated dynamically across different transport networks.
Enter rideOS, which was gunning to be the leader in providing the answers. We first met with co-founders Justin Ho and Chris Blumenberg in the spring of 2018. Their original concept was to build the cloud software that would run robotaxi and other services — a ground-based equivalent of “air traffic control” that safely coordinates fleets in real time, optimizing against flexibly-specified constraints. The offering was end-to-end, inclusive of driver and passenger mobile apps. The technology was versatile, applicable for human-powered fleets as well — including conventional ride-hailing providers that were chasing the likes of Uber, Lyft and Didi but could not afford to spin up internal mapping programs.
We were intrigued immediately not just by the uniqueness of the product vision but also the two young founders. They had met at Uber — where the ride-hailing industry had been invented and vaulted to global scale. CEO Justin had worked on strategy and M&A globally, helping architect the internal Maps and Autonomous practices. He was perfectly complemented by CTO Chris who as head of Uber Maps had built out routing and navigation tech stacks and led large engineering teams, following a long stretch of maps experience and product leadership at Apple. And in proof that culture is a competitive advantage, they attracted an amazing team around them — one that energized around the high-impact company vision of catalyzing the next-generation transport of people and goods; but that was equally motivated by an environment where fairness and respect for the individual were treated as sacrosanct. We realized that we had found something special. Next47 led the rideOS Series B round, joining a distinguished investor group including Sequoia Capital and Singapore’s ST Engineering.
Fast forward to the present. On the big picture front, AV technical development has progressed and investor support continued. A consolidation phase has begun and new sources of capital tapped as a few leading players have pursued public listing (including Next47 portfolio company Aeva). With maturity, the industry has also adopted a long view. The optimism that engineering hurdles of individual vehicle autonomy would be solved within three years has been replaced with a practical embrace of just how formidable the AI challenges are.
Startup journeys often take unexpected turns. As it became obvious that the market door to an AV-filled future was going to take a little more time to open, a new one was rapidly widening in the on-demand delivery and logistics segment, accelerated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Our map was suggesting a modest re-route, and we took advantage. Through 2020, rideOS expanded the product suite — the extension from ride-hailing to delivery was a natural one — and entertained ramping commercial interest from logistics players. Among the new conversations was one with Gopuff. Using a vertically integrated micro-fulfillment center model, Gopuff delivers everyday essentials to consumers rapidly using a huge network of drivers. Backed by significant resources, the company is hyper-scaling, deepening its presence across the US and expanding to other countries. With time of the essence, the two parties became increasingly excited about how profoundly the Gopuff technical and business roadmap could be accelerated if they joined forces.
That win-win vision becomes a reality this week as rideOS joins Gopuff to supercharge all-things-delivery. A special aspect of the rideOS technology is that it was engineered from day one to work at scale; with large movement volumes and high complexity. Given Gopuff’s huge existing business and ambitious growth trajectory, we expect the product to be deployed in exactly the types of environments that it was designed to shine brightest.
It feels bittersweet to be at this point. First and foremost, I’m thrilled about the synergies and potential for future impact in this pairing. But I will also miss the meaningful interactions — personal and professional, in the Board setting and beyond — with two exceptional founders for whom values and culture are so much more than buzzwords.
It’s been a deeply rewarding journey together — and certainly not one that we could have predicted. As the rideOS family sets out on its next adventure, our entire global team at Next47 wishes them all the best for future success. We can’t wait to see where their road takes them from here.