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The Self-Driving Startup That Could Challenge the Biggest Names in Tech and Auto

Zachary Stutler

The self-driving vehicle industry grows more competitive and advanced every day. Yet, with companies from Ford F and Uber UBER to Alphabet GOOGL all racing to commercialize large-scale autonomous driving, one self-driving startup seems ready to compete with the heavyweights in a potentially trillion-dollar industry.

The autonomous driving industry is still in its infancy, but the technology is advancing rapidly. Multiple companies already have pilot and early-stage programs. Completely autonomous vehicles are expected to hit the roads within five years, but widescale autonomy is probably still a decade or so away. Yet companies such as Tesla TSLA are more ambitious, as CEO Elon Musk expects his electric vehicle company to have a robotaxi fleet by the end of 2020.

Ride-sharing firms Uber UBER and Lyft are also interested in the autonomous vehicle industry because they see their long-term financial success tied directly to self-driving. Meanwhile, trucking and delivery companies hope to automate their fleets as the technology begins to catch up to real world requirements. This is why some many companies have invested in autonomous technology and self-driving startups.

About Aurora Innovation

Founded in 2017, Aurora Innovation is a startup that plans to be a leader in autonomous driving. Aurora received $600 million in Series B funding which kicked off in February, led by Sequoia Capital and also supported by T. Rowe Price TROW and Amazon.com AMZN. The impressive group that participated in the most recent round of funding clearly has faith in the Palo Alto-headquartered upstart’s leadership, and for good reason.

Aurora’s CEO Chris Urmson helped develop self-driving software and hardware that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Later, Urmson went on to serve as chief technology officer for Alphabet’s GOOGL self-driving car unit, which is now called Waymo.

Aurora’s Chief Product Officer, Sterling Anderson, led the design, development, and launch of Tesla’s Model X. And Chief Technical Officer Drew Bagnell was a founding member of Carnegie Robots at Carnegie Mellon University. Bagnell also worked for Uber’s Advanced Technology Center.

The Product

Aurora is developing what is called a “full-stack” in the autonomous vehicle industry, because it includes sensors, machine-learning software, and control mechanics. The company’s full-stack approach will enable it to license its software or sell the hardware to be used on a variety of car makes and models. Aurora calls its product the Aurora Driver, which is what will ultimately be the ‘driver’ of a driverless vehicle.

Auto companies developing their own hardware and software, such as General Motors’ GM Cruise tech, may not be as good as Aurora’s technology due to the limited number of models that it operates on. Since most self-driving technology uses machine learning, the more car models it is used on, the faster it will learn and improve.

Aurora is already working with major auto-industry names such as Volkswagen VWAGY, Hyundai HYMLF, which includes Kia, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCAU. Hyundai added to Aurora’s Series B funding in June, while Fiat Chrysler inked an agreement with Aurora to work on self-driving commercial vehicles around the same time. Volkswagen then announced after the Fiat Chrysler news that it would end its partnership with Aurora after working together for well over a year.

Aurora is also determined to remain an independent company. In 2018, while Aurora and Volkswagen were still partnered, Volkswagen approached Aurora to purchase the company, but Aurora turned down the offer since it wants to work with multiple auto brands. By remaining independent, Aurora likely has much more growth potential down the road, especially as more and more automakers race to catch up in the autonomous vehicle space.

Along with its auto industry partnerships, Aurora in early 2018 teamed up with Nvidia NVDA. The chip maker will provide Aurora with its Xavier processor, which will act as a building block for the self-driving system.

By partnering with companies that are on the cutting edge of their respective industries, Aurora has been able to focus on its own development and become a leader in the autonomous driving industry.

The Future

It is unclear exactly how Aurora will commercialize the its Driver technology, but it has many options. The company can simply license its software or sell the full-stack altogether as a product, although it is unlikely the average consumer would purchase from Aurora directly.

By partnering with auto companies, it has opened up the possibility of using its tech and another company’s vehicles to establish an automated ride-share or robotaxi service.

Aurora Innovation early on has shown its willing to compete against the biggest of companies, even though it isn’t selling a product yet. Autonomous vehicles will soon be a normal part of our society, and it is no longer a matter of if, but rather when.

What is still undetermined is who will become the major players in the industry. Aurora Innovation looks ready to try to compete with the largest companies in the space, and some of the biggest names in tech and venture capital have bet on the startup’s ability to standout in a saturated autonomous vehicle space.

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