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Volkswagen, Hyundai Team Up With Autonomous Startup

January 9, 2018 0 Comments

Nearly ten years into the autonomous vehicle movement, most of the main automotive players have partnered up with tech firms focused on developing autonomous tech. As it stands, most automakers can’t go it alone; they can build the cars, but may not be able to handle manufacturing the software and dealing with the customer-facing expertise required.

General Motors bought the startup Cruise in 2016. Last year, Ford invested $1 billion in Argo AI. Industry supplier Delphi has joined up with Nutonomy, an MIT spinoff.

Now, Volkswagen and Hyundai are joining the fray: Aurora Innovation announced that it had signed deals with the two automakers to get its autonomous tech into commercial service.
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“Our mission is to deliver self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly,” said Chris Urmson, Aurora Innovation co-founder and CEO. “And to do that, we needed to find automotive partners that had global scale.”

Aurora Innovation launched in 2017, but its three founders more than make up for the startup’s relative newness to the industry. All three bear “impressive LinkedIn page[s]”: Urmson, a founding member and longtime technical leader of Google’s self-driving efforts; Sterling Anderson, who used to run Tesla’s Autopilot program; and Drew Bagnell, previously a leader on Uber’s autonomy team who also worked with Urmson on Carnegie Mellon’s entry into the Darpa Grand Challenges.

As self-driving vehicles move ever closer to becoming a reality, they bring with them questions on how to lower sensor costs and manage power consumption, how to deal with insurers and regulators, and what to do in the event of a crash. The trio heading Aurora have spent the past ten years or so thinking about these problems (and potential solutions) and have made real progress. At least, it was enough to draw in VW and Hyundai.

According to Urmson, Aurora’s youth offers the startup an advantage: beginning fresh in the current market lets its engineers rely on and build around the most modern machine learning techniques right from the start.

That’s not to say that automakers and tech firms which have been in the game longer are relying on out-of-date tools, but Aurora having managed to sign with VW and Hyundai proves that it has something going for it despite its smaller size and low profile.

And what a low profile indeed: Aurora has not disclosed how many vehicles are being used to test its system (its fleet is currently made up of Lincoln sedans, but that’s sure to change in light of its new partnerships). Urmson wouldn’t say how many people work for him at the startup, though over 60 people on LinkedIn list Aurora as their employer. Even if that number doesn’t comprise the total number of Aurora employees, it’s still a far cry compared to Uber’s hundreds of engineers and Cruise’s potential 1,100 new hires in the next few years.

Aurora’s partnership with VW will enable the startup to bring “mobility as a service” to urban areas, said Urmson, meaning Uber-like services sans the human drivers. It’s a pretty common move: Alphabet’s Waymo has plans to do the same thing, as do Uber, Ford, and GM.

It’s just the beginning. The VW deal could lead to branching out, putting Aurora software into other vehicles (e.g. delivery vans, shuttles) and use cases (e.g. urban shipping, micro-transit).

The Hyundai partnership will have Aurora putting software into the Korean automaker’s cars, including some custom-developed rides to roam the cities on their own.

There aren’t many specifics about either deal available, but the basic intention is clear: Aurora can’t make the cars, but it can make the cars drive themselves. It’s perfectly symbiotic with VW, which has worked on several automation projects since the late 1980s without a lot of progress to show for it. Hyundai has been in a similar boat, lagging behind, but Aurora should be able to boost both automakers towards the front of the pack.

When will the fruits of the partnerships be ready and available? Urmson offered an industry standard response: As quickly as possible, though not before the tech is ready.

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