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Why One VC Is Betting Big on Autonomous Trucking Tech

by Sam Chase
Maryland-based venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates' portfolio includes many businesses that are working in future-leaning markets.

One of those is Jet.com, which is a leader in e-commerce. Another investment, Opower, is described on NEA's website as an "energy efficiency software-as-a-service company offering an analytics platform that enables utilities to communicate with residential customers about energy usage." Legacy industries these are not. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, then, that NEA's latest investment is in a more established field: trucking.

But NEA did not back a business-as-usual shipping and logistics company. Instead, the VC firm led a $42 million Series C financing round for Transfix, a New York startup that leverages machine learning to power advanced software that facilitates freight shipping for both carriers and shippers. Fellow VC firms Canvas Ventures and Lerer Hippeau Ventures joined NEA in the round, and the Series C money brought Transfix's total capital raised up to $78.5 million.

The services that Transfix offers for trucking companies are valuable ones that are not typically bundled together.

An online truckload marketplace lets businesses find the right carrier based on a variety of factors, including price and geography. Once their product is out on the road, companies receive real-time tracking of their cargo. Eventually, shippers and carriers receive analytics that give them insight into their performance and suggestions for cost-saving measures. It's all about efficiency.

"There is a lot of misinformation in the freight industry which creates pressure, impossible -- and sometimes dangerous -- deadlines, misdeliveries, and ultimately the failure to satisfy customers," Transfix founder and CEO Drew McElroy said in a statement. "It's a problem that's ecosystem-wide, not just limited to a single part or parcel. That's why we're focused on providing a comprehensive solution for the supply chain."

For NEA, aligning with Transfix represents yet another investment in the future of mobility and commercial trucking.

The VC firm recently led a $34 million Series B round of fundraising for Swift Navigation. The tech company provides GPS products that are accurate down to the centimeter and it offers real-time tracking of various types of vehicles, both industrial and consumer. It's the type of technology that will be essential in the development of self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles.

NEA also has investments with companies such as Drive.ai and Echodyne, both of which produce technology for autonomous vehicles.

With companies such as Einride aiming to have fleets of self-driving freight trucks on the road by 2020, many believe that these types of vehicles could be on the road in large numbers long before consumer autonomous vehicles. It's clearly a possibility that NEA has considered.

"As we have invested in technologies that enable an autonomous future, we believe it is important to consider near-term adoption and use cases because full autonomy for consumer vehicles is a long way off," NEA associate Arjun Aggarwal told Xconomy in talking about the Transfix round.

"We believe that the $726 billion trucking and logistics industry is one that will be disrupted by autonomous technologies in an accelerated fashion relative to others simply due to the massive costs and inefficiencies that characterize the market, along with up-ended consumer delivery expectations," he added.

To a certain extent, this belief that trucking will be the first vehicular sector to fully implement autonomous tech could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If VCs such as NEA believe that to be true, their large financial investments will help make it so.

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