5 Transportation Startups Making Waves

The race for autonomous vehicles is heating up, with dozens of startups focusing on advanced sensors, electrical architecture, artificial intelligence, machine learning and self-driving cars.

Transportation startups are booming.

The race for autonomous vehicles heating up, with dozens of startups that address advancing sensors, electrical architecture, artificial intelligence, or machine learning and self-driving cars cropping up. Silicon Valley and the surrounding area is fast becoming the hub of transportation innovation.

There are two reasons for Silicon Valley’s dominance in this space, says William Riggs, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, who specializes in transportation and innovative mobility:

  1. The concentration of tech talent in the area that can address the role of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the auto-making process.
  2. What economist call “an agglomeration economy where clustering and synergistic activities create economic value” – attracting venture capitalists eager to invest.

“There is a lot of dialogue in the industry on how the fast the autonomous vehicles are going to take place,” says Riggs. “But if we look into our magic ball, and we predicted that the future is only about autonomous vehicles, we are destined to be wrong.”

There are other areas of the transportation that have room to innovate such as improving the mobility footprint for children, elderly and vulnerable populations, he added.

Icons of Infrastructure looks at five startups, both big and small, based in and around the Bay Area — that are bringing novel solutions for both the future and present transportation concerns.

Screenshot of Swiftly's current product.

Founded: 2014

Founders: Jonny Simkin, Mike Smith and Will Dayton

Jonny Simkin

Home base: San Francisco

Employees: 20-25

Speciality: Mass transit

San Francisco-based Swiftly is trying to revolutionize public transit through their software allowing cities to identify their weak spots. It is one of the few startups addressing mass transportation using big data, and it is being deployed in 50 cities.

The way it works: The GPS record of buses and trains in a transit system are collected in real time, recording arrival and departure times, and that information is then compared to historical data to provide analytics to cities, helping them identify how to reduce congestion, improve their timetables and overall service.
The company is founded by Jonny Simkin, along with Mike Smith and Will Dayton. Simkin is a San Diego native, whose experience ditching his car in Silicon Valley and relying on mass transportation inspired his idea for Swiftly.

Bird Rides, Inc.

Founded: 2017

Founder: Travis Vander Zanden

Home base: Los Angeles

Employees: ~500

Specialty: E-scooters

The so-called e-scooter revolution is here. From LA to Tel Aviv, the company Bird has been expanding globally to offer their dockless e-scooter that can be accessed via smartphone starting at $1 plus 15 cents per minute — and then can be left parked anywhere.

Available in 50 cities nationwide, it was founded in 2017 by Travis Vander Zanden, the former executive at Lyft and Uber.

It’s providing what’s called “a last-mile solution” that gives commuters the ability to travel from public transit to their destination as an alternative to ride-hailing services.

But it hasn’t been without controversy in cities that are trying to limit Bird and its main competitor Lime. In San Francisco, two of the underdog e-scooter companies were given permits – a snub to the two major companies.

The impact that Lime’s partnership with Uber on Bird remains to be seen, but it could make them stand out as an independent brand.

Flexport now actually has a 747 and needs to recruit more engineers, Tweeted Ryan Petersen.

Founded: 2013

Founder: Ryan Petersen

Home base: San Francisco

Employees: ~880

Specialty: Freight shipping

Ryan Petersen

Once referred to as the “unsexiest trillion-dollar startup,” Flexport’s founder Ryan Petersen tapped into something a valuable insight – that shipping is a complicated dance with many moving parts. From the ocean, to railroads, to truck beds, tracking the movement of goods in no easy task.

Petersen had worked in China, getting to know the supply chain and international shipping, which led him to his idea for his company that does for shipping what FedEx does for mail packages.

The freight forwarder and logistical platform allows clients to see the status of the cargo at every step of the supply chain.

Flexport has been named the one of the fastest-growing companies, with over 880 employees, across nine cities.

Jon and Rob Sadow founded Scoop in 2015.

Founded: 2015

Founders: Jonathan Sadow, Robert Sadow.

Home base: Bay Area

Employees: ~85

Specialty: Carpooling

The brother team Jon and Rob Sadow founded Scoop and want to take carpooling to another level, in order to reduce the amount of cars on the road. Scoop works mainly with corporate tech clients like LinkedIn, Workday, T-Mobil, and Symantec among others, so that employees can carpool to work in the mornings and back home.

Reservations have to be made in advance, and users also have a choice of riding with certain colleagues or with a particular driver again. Some companies also subsidize the costs for the carpool, so some pay only $1 to ride.

The company is venturing out of the Bay Area, extending their services to Portland in April of this year.


Founded: 2012

Founder: Austin Russell

Home base: Palo Alto

Austin Russell

Employees: 350

Specialty: LIDAR, self-driving cars

Luminar is banking that their system using LIDAR, the method of using the laser pulses to measure distances from objects and enables the creation of 3-models of surrounding environments, can be used in the development of the self-driving car.

What makes Luminar unique is that they are building all of their own components, from “chip-up,” including their lasers, receivers, and processing electronics for quality control and precision of their sensors, which they report, has 50 times better resolution than their competitors. The company scored deals with Volvo and Toyota.

The sensor can see a million points per second and would allow a self-driving car to react to an object in seven seconds.

The company was founded by Austin Russell, who dropped out of Stanford to focus on developing this technology, at 23.

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