February 10th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
It’s no secret that cars that drive themselves are coming and soon. DARPA got the ball rolling in the early part of this century when it challenged teams of engineers to design vehicles that could drive themselves with no human interaction through the Nevada desert. One of those teams was from Google, whose effort led more or less directly to Waymo, the spinoff company that is now offering rides in autonomous minivans to people in the Phoenix area.
The Google team started with a blank canvas. How it achieved its goals is a fascinating story, one told in loving detail by the man who headed the program, Lawrence Burns, in his book Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car… and How It Will Reshape Our World. Two of the principal members of that team were people who have gone on to found their own autonomous startups — the mercurial, break every rule Anthony Levandowski and the patient, steady Chris Urmson.
The two men clashed repeatedly at Waymo and both have been embroiled in legal challenges since leaving the nest created by Google. Levandowski founded OTTO, a self driving startup for tractor trailers, but Google sued him, claiming he had misappropriated gigabytes of proprietary information on his way out the door. He wound up at Uber but was cashiered as the result of his bad boy ways.
Urmson got together with two other superstars of the autonomous tech world — Sterling Anderson, formerly head of autonomy at Tesla, and Drew Bagnelli, who headed Uber’s autonomy team — to found Aurora Innovation. If star power is any indication of the potential for success, the company has to be considered one of the leaders in autonomous tech in the world today. Tesla, of course, is another front runner.
To date, that dazzling lineup of talent has attracted investments from some very significant investors. Aurora has just finished a second round of funding that raised an additional $530 million. One of the major participants in the new funding is Amazon; another is Sequoia Capital. How much money each of them contributed is not a matter of public record, but Sequoia now has a seat on Aurora’s board of directors. T. Rowe Price also participated in the new funding round.
Just how much credibility Aurora has in the world of autonomous tech is revealed by the words of Carl Eschenbach, a partner at Sequoia and its designee for that new seat on the Aurora board. “[W]e met with nearly every AV company in the world from Detroit to Singapore. But each discussion brought us back to Chris and his team as the benchmark against which everyone else was measured,” he wrote in a blog post.
Anderson told The Verge in an interview last year, “As the saying goes, A players want to work with A players. I think the very common response from those who come onsite to interview at Aurora is ‘holy shit, you have an impressive team.’” Indeed. One of the company’s new hires is Jinnah Hosein, formerly the head of software engineering at SpaceX. He will be leading a software engineering team at Aurora, according to TechCrunch.
Aurora is focused on developing what it calls a “full stack” software package that The Verge says will act as the nervous system for self-driving cars. The company plans to market that technology as a sort of drop-in system car makers can use to guide their own vehicles without the expense of doing their own R&D. A number of car companies have already formed partnerships with Aurora, including Volkswagen and Hyundai. New Chinese electric car startup Byton has also announced Aurora will play a major role in bringing Level 4 autonomy to its vehicles.
What is Amazon’s interest in autonomy? “We are always looking to invest in innovative, customer-obsessed companies, and Aurora is just that,” the company said in an e-mail to TechCrunch. “Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”
Amazon recently announced it is experimenting with small electric autonomous delivery vehicles as part of its Scout program. Late last month, CNBC reported it is using self-driving tractor trailers equipped with self-driving technology from Embark to haul cargo on California’s I-10 highway. “We are always innovating and working with innovative companies to improve the customer experience and safety of our team,” a spokesperson for Amazon said. “We think successful over the road autonomy will create safer roadways and a better work environment for drivers on long-haul runs.” And perhaps add a few more dollars to Amazon’s already overflowing corporate coffers.
Aurora is poised to be a global leader in self driving technology but it knows the road ahead will not be easy and the ultimate objective is still somewhere over the horizon. And it knows that as successful as it has been at raising capital so far, it will need further injections of cash as time goes on. Urmson calls Sequoia’s participation in the latest funding round a “stamp of approval” from the investment community.
“We’re trying to be strategic about it and have people around the table who share the vision of where we want to go as a company and who understand how hard the problem is — this is not a short-term play — and knowing that ultimately we will need more capital,” he tells TechCrunch.
Urmson and Levandowski — locked together in a titanic struggle to control the future of transportation. One is crashing the gates, breaking things along the way. The other is more of a plodder, someone who establishes clear goals and then makes meticulous plans to achieve them. Who will prevail? Taking a cue from Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the answer to that question might be contained in the apocryphal story The Tortoise And The Hare.