A startup founded by second-year Waterloo Engineering students just five years ago would have a market capitalization of US $5.16 billion under a proposed merger to make it a publicly traded company.

Embark Trucks, which is based in San Francisco, was launched by former mechatronics engineering students Alex Rodrigues and Brandon Moak to bring autonomous technology to the trucking industry.

After meeting during their studies at Waterloo, Rodrigues and Moak made their first public splash in 2015 by driving Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University, around the Ring Road in an autonomous golf cart they had built in a garage.

A forerunner of Embark, Varden Labs, also involved engineering classmate Michael Skupien and got its start with help from a $25,000 win in the Velocity pitch competition for student startups at the University of Waterloo.

Pivot to trucking in 2016

The young entrepreneurs pivoted from self-driving shuttles for resorts, campuses and gated communities to the trucking industry when Rodrigues and Moak launched Embark in 2016.

This week, Embark announced a proposed deal with Northern Genesis 2, a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company, that would provide it with US $614 million to fully fund it through to the anticipated commercialization in 2024 of its self-driving software for long-distance freight trips. The deal is expected to close later this year.

“We have been solely focused on solving the problem of self-driving software for trucking since Embark’s CTO, Brandon Moak, and I founded the company in 2016,” Rodrigues, the CEO, said in a media release.

“This singular and disciplined focus on the trucking market in the United States has allowed Embark to achieve many industry-first technology milestones – including the first self-driving truck to drive coast-to-coast – and positions Embark to be a leader in autonomous trucking software.”

'War chest' secured for commercialization

Trucking in the United States is an annual US $700-billion industry. Embark is seeking to tap that market by charging trucking companies per-mile subscription fees for software to enable self-driving trucks in their fleets.

“After many years of R and D on the world’s most mature self-driving truck software stack, we plan to enable carrier operation of self-driving trucks in the U.S. sunbelt beginning in 2024,” Rodrigues said in the release. “Following the transaction with Northern Genesis we expect to have a war chest that fully funds this commercialization plan, and then some."

Embark also announced that Elaine Chao, the former US secretary of transportation and secretary of labor, has joined its board of directors.

Photo: Feridun Hamdullahpur (left), president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, takes a spin in a self-driving golf cart in 2015 with mechatronics engineering student Alex Rodrigues, who is now CEO of autonomous trucking company Embark.