Qingtian Truck, a self-driving truck startup based in China, is reportedly on the brink of closure, facing significant setbacks in its operations. The company, which had emerged just 19 months ago, is now facing the prospect of employee displacement and potential liquidation, according to a report by local media outlet Jiemian.
Citing sources within the self-driving industry, the report reveals that engineers from Qingtian Truck have been leaving the company in droves. While the company's registration information remains unchanged and its operating status technically intact, its website has not been updated with any news since January, indicating a lack of recent activity.
Qingtian Truck was established in Beijing in November 2021 with a focus on developing self-driving truck technology. Merely two and a half months after its inception, the company secured an angel funding round of nearly $10 million from 5Y Capital, which is the only publicly disclosed investment round thus far.
However, in August 2022, Qingtian Truck found itself entangled in legal troubles when Pony.ai, a self-driving startup backed by Toyota Motor and Nio Capital, filed a lawsuit against the company and its key executives, Pan Zhenhao and Sun Youhan. Pony.ai alleged that Qingtian Truck had infringed upon its trade secrets. Pan and Sun, both founders of Qingtian Truck, had previously worked for Pony.ai, exacerbating the legal dispute.
Pony.ai sought a court order to halt Qingtian Truck's infringement on its trade secrets and demanded economic damages and expenses totaling RMB 60 million ($8.3 million). In response, Qingtian Truck filed a countersuit against Pony.ai in April, accusing the company of abusing its intellectual property rights and engaging in unfair competition.
However, in a surprising turn of events, both companies announced in June that they had reached a settlement and mutually withdrew their lawsuits against each other. The terms of the settlement remain undisclosed.
While the exact cause of Qingtian Truck's current difficulties remains unclear, investors in the autonomous driving sector have grown increasingly cautious due to the uncertain prospects of commercialization amidst China's slowing economic growth. This cautious sentiment is exemplified by e-commerce giant Alibaba's DAMO Academy, which recently integrated its autonomous driving business and team fully into its logistics arm Cainiao, as reported by Shanghai Securities News in May. The move signifies Alibaba's transition from pioneering technology exploration in the laboratory to real-world applications in the field of self-driving technology.
As Qingtian Truck faces impending closure, the setbacks it has encountered serve as a sobering reminder of the challenges faced by startups in the self-driving industry. The future of the company and its employees remains uncertain, as does the impact of these developments on the wider autonomous driving landscape.