Co-founded by former Google Self-Driving Car chief Chris Urmson, ex-Tesla Autopilot leader Sterling Anderson, and Drew Bagnell, a key member of Uber’s Advanced Technology Center, the Palo Alto, California, company is working closely with Volkswagen and Hyundai on autonomous vehicle projects. Both auto giants want products utilizing Aurora technology ready by 2021, with VW initially targeting an on-demand “mobility as a service” electric vehicle based on its Sedric concept.
“We want to be the ideal partner for cities offering mobility as a service, an all-in-one solution,” Volkswagen Group Chief Digital Officer Johann Jungwirth told Forbes. “They are a perfect complement to what we are focusing on.”
Aurora’s moves come as Waymo, the company created to commercialize Google’s decade of self-driving car R&D, prepares to start a revenue-generating on-demand ride service in Phoenix this year. General Motors, with its Cruise unit, isn’t far behind, anticipating a commercial autonomous service by 2019 while numerous other auto and tech firms similarly aim to launch self-driving vehicles in 2020 or 2021.
Unlike companies including Alphabet’s Waymo, GM, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, Nissan and Daimler, Volkswagen, with its multiple global brands including Audi and Porsche, and the Hyundai group’s Hyundai and Kia, have been more circumspect about specific plans to integrate autonomous capability into their models. And while Waymo is both developing all the hardware and software that robotic vehicles need and planning its own driverless ride service, Aurora is positioned itself as a pure engineering partner ready to work in direct collaboration with companies seeking its particular expertise.
Urmson and Bagnell are self-driving car veterans who’ve worked in that field more than a decade, notably starting with the DARPA Challenges that ran from 2004 to 2007. Anderson is an MIT-trained roboticist who helped Elon Musk launch Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous drive feature three years ago.
“Clearly, it's about the best team and the best talent … Drew Bagnell is probably one of the top five guys in the world in machine learning for perception,” said Jungwirth, who's known Urmson since 2010. “I have tremendous trust in this team and at the end of the day that's what relationships, partnerships are about.”
Aurora has worked with Volkswagen for nearly a year, said co-founder and Chief Product Officer Anderson, while the Hyundai partnership is a more recent one. “With both partnerships, the intention is to work toward broader deployment of self-driving vehicles, as quickly and as safely as possible,” he said in an interview.
“We've been working with Volkswagen group now for 10 months, and that partnership is quite deep, in terms of the work that's been done on preparing a vehicle platform, rollout plans for various things they'd like to do with this technology,” said Anderson, who left Tesla in late 2016. “ With Hyundai, the partnership is a little bit newer, but the hope is similar in that we will work first toward pilot deployments in certain cities and ultimately to bring self-driving to markets across the company’s operations.”
Hyundai intends to incorporate Aurora tech into “models custom developed and launched in test programs and pilot cities,” it said in a statement, without elaborating. Initially, the two will collaborate on hardware and software for so-called Level 4 autonomous vehicles, those that can handle nearly all standard driving conditions without need of a human at the wheel.
Neither Volkswagen, Hyundai nor Aurora is disclosing financial terms of the partnerships. Jungwirth said Volkswagen is paying for “engineering work, components and licensing of software,” though he declined to elaborate.
Urmson and Anderson declined to say how much Aurora has raised so far to fund its operations and wouldn't provide details on how many computer scientists, engineers and AI developers work at its offices in Palo Alto and Pittsburgh.
Although Volkswagen doesn’t yet have an equity position in the small startup, that could change.
"Long-term probably only a handful of companies will actually be setting the standard and developing a self-driving system which actually can be delivered into many OEM's vehicles. I personally believe they will be one of these," said Jungwirth. “Until now Aurora hasn't been open yet for outside investment. We are very open to that and interested in that. That's all I can say at this time.”
Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Staff