Raquel Urtasun starts Toronto self-driving company Waabi, after leaving Uber


TORONTO — After the COVID-19 pandemic turned travel demand upside down, Uber Technologies Inc. decided to hit the brakes on its six-year-old self-driving car venture, selling it to Silicon Valley startup Aurora.

By then Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group had settled a 2017 U.S. lawsuit in which it was accused of stealing trade secrets from Google’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo. Uber’s safety procedures underwent intense scrutiny after one of its test cars struck and killed a Tempe, Ariz. woman in 2018.

But Raquel Urtasun — the star of Uber’s self-driving efforts in Canada — wasn’t ready to give up on autonomous vehicles.

Urtasun, who was recruited from a University of Toronto professor job to run Uber’s Toronto ATG unit in 2017 and then promoted to become its chief scientist a year later, left the tech giant and started her own self-driving company, Waabi, earlier this year.

“I had thought about doing my own company for a while now,” she said, ahead of unveiling her company to the world on Tuesday. “The more that I worked in the industry, the more it became clear that the traditional way of doing things is … I don’t think the way to go.

“There is a need for new technology and I have a very clear vision of what that technology is.”

So she set out to build that technology at Waabi, whose name is derived from an Ojibwe word meaning “she has vision” and the Japanese term for “simple.”

Waabi has a lofty goal: Bringing the promise of self-driving closer to commercialization than ever before.

Urtasun wouldn’t offer specific timelines for how soon Canadians could see self-driving vehicles on roads, but experts have predicted it could take anywhere from a few years to decades for them to become ubiquitous.

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk estimated in 2015 that they would be commonplace in the next two to three years, while Lyft’s chief executive once imagined car ownership would “all but end” by 2025.