Toyota AI Ventures bets on Boxbot

This is Toyota's first investment in the self-driving delivery space, signaling increased attention in last-mile delivery from major players.

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Self-driving robots for urban delivery are on the way, aided by investment from some big players in the industry.

Boxbot, an Oakland startup that makes self-driving delivery robots, just raised $7.5 million in a seed round that included investment from Toyota AI Ventures, the AI-focused venture subsidiary of the recently-formed Toyota Research Institute.

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"I've previously argued that it will be years before we share the roads with fully autonomous, Level 5 self-driving cars," said Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures. "That said, there are specific use cases and environments where autonomous vehicles could hit the roads now. Self-driving delivery is another example of just such a use case.

It's Toyota AI Ventures' first investment in the space, signaling a new phase in the investment cycle for companies developing last-mile delivery robots.

Boxbot, founded by Tesla and Uber alums in 2016, is one of a spate of companies developing small unmanned vehicles for last-mile delivery. Just last week, I wrote about Robby, the Bay Area robot currently delivering for Doordash, Instacart, and Postmates in select California testbeds.

"Over the next few years, self-driving vehicles will transform last-mile, making it cheaper to make deliveries and easier to receive them," said Brian Wilcove, a partner at Artiman Ventures, which led Boxbot's recent round. "Boxbot has a unique approach and deep expertise across the disciplines that will drive that transformation."

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Boxbot has been more secretive with its hardware than competitors Robby or Marble. But local news coverage suggested the company is currently testing in Walnut Creek, Calif.

As with other so-called Personal Delivery Devices (PDDs), Boxbot's robots will have to comply with strict rules and be monitored closely by human overseers throughout testing.

Toyota AI Ventures has been increasing its investment in self-driving startups. The venture fund recently invested in Ann Arbor-based May Mobility, which is pioneering self-driving shuttles for college campuses.