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Startup Tackles Overlooked Area in Autonomous Transport: City Freight

Making commuter cars intelligent enough to drive people from point A to point B only scratches the surface of the potential use cases for intelligent vehicles. This New York startup is driving to tackle one such less-sought case.

From tech titans to auto conglomerates, transforming the future of driving is all the rage. The quest to make driving passengers from point A to point B without a human behind the wheel is the uniting goal behind the race that spans nearly every industry, from Detroit to Silicon Valley.

“That is the trillion-dollar question,” as Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber, put it in an interview in 2016.

Yet there seems to be room for one more competitor, an upstart project with a slightly different game plan. 

Enter Stocker Freight, a New York City startup aiming to transform the way cargo moves inside dense cities.

“In the last year, we’ve become acutely aware of the urbanization and sustainability problems that face New York and other major cities in the coming decades. We want Stocker to play a role in ensuring cities can continue to thrive in the face of tremendous growth,” says Paul Sammut, one of the two founders of the company. “We are fully committed to our vision of building the city freight service.”

What began as a nights and weekend project for the first year has now advanced to the capital raising phase, in order to, among others, to accelerate the pace of development. 

Sammut met his co-founder Jason Tsui in high school. Sammut went on to study mechanical engineering and robotics to the graduate level, which took him to a decade of academic underwater robotics research. Tsui studied economics, going on to develop a career focusing on product strategy. This mix of technical ability and an understanding of the business-side, the two New Yorkers believe, puts them in a competitive position to make an impact in the increasingly crowded space.

While Sammut and Tsui acknowledge the challenge ahead, they believe that shifting market forces are on their side.

“Freight demand in the city is rising; we’re expecting to see a 46% increase in truck freight by 2040. Manhattan speeds have been slowing since 2012 and citizens are demanding more pedestrian, transit and bike-friendly spaces,” he explains.

The the duo came up with the idea for Stocker out of a mix of frustration and conviction that, like many founders before them, there is a problem that will eventually need to be fixed.

“As an academic engineer, I spent lots of time working on robotics technology that unfortunately had very limited impact. When the combined cost of the robots rose above half-a-million dollars, I felt absolutely compelled to apply technology to more broad problems that face society, where they would be most leveraged in providing value.”

While autonomous vehicles is an umbrella term most commonly associated with Google’s self-driving car project Waymo, or Uber’s efforts to make its ubiquitous ride-hailing service driverless, making commuter cars intelligent enough to drive people from point A to point B only scratches the surface of the potential of autonomous vehicles.

“Freight demand in the city is rising; we’re expecting to see a 46% increase in truck freight by 2040. Manhattan speeds have been slowing since 2012,”

The young founder explains that his company will echo the vision of the larger players by creating fleets of cargo transit vehicles.

“Stocker is abstracting city freight into a simple, pay-as-you-go service. By using fleets of autonomous vehicles developed for the sole purpose of moving freight in cities, we will be able to create an efficient, reliable and flexible freight service not possible with a human driver based system.”

Unlike many other startups, the duo have a plan in place for generating revenue. Initially, they will simply charge businesses that want to move goods from one location in a city to another. Eventually, he explains, they will begin to offer a more complete set of logistics serices, such as warehousing and more intake options. 

“The idea is that if you want to sell goods to businesses in the city, you shouldn’t have to worry about how to move them,” explains Sammut. 

I ask the founders why they would enter a niche space dominated by much larger players, with mountains of capital and no shortage of existing clients in their respective universe.

“The question for us was: beyond personal mobility, what other transportation jobs are there to be done and who will be the customers? As we homed in on city freight, we found that no one else is building autonomous vehicles specifically designed for this job. We think this focus is what separates us from the robotaxis, the highway trucks and sidewalk bots.”

Instead of tackling the mass-consumer segment blessed (or perhaps, cursed) with endless media spotlight, the two founders believe their edge lies in the niche quality of autonomous freight.

“Our competitive advantage comes from working on this problem in the most direct way possible. We’re setting up shop in New York City, and we’ll develop our tech here and ultimately offer our freight service here. There will be no adaptation, translation or reconfiguration of our tech to deliver freight in New York,” Paul explains, “it’s purpose-built.”

On raising capital for the project, the founders tell me that the startup has been mostly bootstrapped from their own savings, and winnings from prior projects. The two are now ready to raise capital from investors after learning from their prototypes, in order to build a van to operate autonomously along a freight route in New York City.

In brief, their plan rests on the economic considerations of most businesses that rely on transportation of goods inside cities. While the use of roads in undergoing a dramatic shift in heavily congested cities such as New York, companies still need goods to be delivered in a reasonable time, and at a reasonable cost, if they are to thrive.

“We think autonomous vehicles will play a critical role in this shift, and that’s why we founded Stocker.”

If you are an investor interested to learn more about Stocker Freight, you can reach the founders at hello@stockerfreight.com.