Clarksburg defense contractor rebrands as it eyes more commercial business

A Clarksburg maker of autonomous vehicles used for military operations is now developing technology for the commercial sector and has changed its name to reflect that strategic shift.

Robotic Research Autonomous Industries (RRAI) rebranded this week as Forterra, part of its broader expansion into commercial industries such as trucking and logging. It’s one of the biggest transformations in the history of the 22-year-old company, which employs about 270 people across four facilities on Gateway Center Drive.

The rebranding comes a little more than a month after founder Alberto Lacaze handed the CEO reins to Josh Araujo, the company’s chief operating officer. Lacaze, one of the Washington Business Journal’s Diversity in Business Awards honorees last year, remains president and chairman of the company.

Araujo said Forterra first began significant work with commercial and industrial entities last year. At a Detroit freight facility, for example, Forterra is providing self-driving yard trucks to Truck Specialized Information Services. It’s also maintaining driverless off-highway logging trucks for FPInnovations in Canada.

Forterra, whose backers include Chevy Chase investment firm Enlightenment Capital, is expecting relationships like these to grow in the years to come and estimates that the total commercial market for its tech is at $23 billion.

Still, don’t expect Forterra to abandon its relationship with the Department of Defense. Araujo said the company is actively competing on all four DOD ground autonomy programs and continues to provide autonomous vehicle solutions on the battlefield.

“We’ve been evolving for years from doing defense research and development to being the military’s leading ground autonomy provider,” Araujo told me over email. “Because our autonomy platform was built to cope with the variable conditions required for the DOD, it easily crosses over to complex industrial commercial applications, from logistics centers to drayage and private roads.”

Forterra’s vehicles won’t be coming to highways or public roads any time soon. The company will stick to contained spaces, like trucking yards or logging roads, as companies producing self-driving vehicles are contending with heightened safety regulations and technical challenges given the unpredictable behavior of human drivers on the road. Because of this, many commercial-focused AV firms have either been acquired for an extreme markdown compared to their initial funding-based valuations or they’ve shut down due to their uncertain revenue prospects over the past few years.

“We focus on defense and industrial uses that avoid the regulatory risks faced by on-road robotaxi and driverless trucking,” Araujo said. “Moreover, the expected growth of DOD’s ground autonomy programs will give us a stable financial foundation from which to innovate and grow.”

Forterra’s proprietary autonomy platform, AutoDrive, has been installed on large combat trucks, small equipment transports and mobile missile systems. The adaptability of its platform can designed to meet specific needs of commercial or industrial clients, said Araujo, declining to disclose revenue figures.

As for the meaning behind the new name, Araujo said Forterra combines “for” as in “directed to” or “belonging to” with “terra” from Latin meaning “earth” or “solid ground.”

Forterra, then working under its previous name, received $228 million in Series A funding in 2021 that included involvement from SoftBank and Enlightenment Capital. It received an undisclosed investment from military and specialty truck maker Oshkosh Corp. in 2022.