Pedigree-Rich Self-Driving Car Company Aurora Strikes Deals With Hyundai, VW

Hyundai plans to release its first self-driving vehicle in 2021, thanks to tech boosts from its partnership with Aurora.

by Aaron Aupperlee, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / January 5, 2018

(TNS) — A self-driving car company with deep roots in Pittsburgh and a test fleet on the city's streets will work with two major auto manufacturers in deals that could bring autonomous vehicles to the road by 2021.

Aurora will partner with Volkswagen Group and Hyundai to provide the hardware, software and expertise needed for self-driving cars, the companies announced Friday.

"We know the future of transportation is autonomous," Woong Chul Yang, vice chairman of Hyundai Motor, said in a statement about the partnership.

The partnerships join the likes of Uber and Volvo, Argo AI and Ford, Waymo and Chrysler and several other collaborations between self-driving tech startups and legacy auto makers.

"We founded Aurora to work alongside, rather than in competition with, the world's leading automakers," Chris Urmson, Aurora CEO and co-founder, wrote in a post on Medium on Thursday.

Aurora was started by Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, an all-star lineup of self-driving gurus. Urmson helped start Google's self-driving car efforts. Anderson, Aurora's chief product officer, headed Tesla's Autopilot program. Bagnell, the company's chief technical officer, was among the first to work on Uber's self-driving car program in Pittsburgh. The company has offices in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif.

Aurora came to Pittsburgh last year but has made little noise since. It has steadily built its team in Pittsburgh and California and quietly tested a fleet of self-driving cars in both states.

Anderson told the Tribune-Review in May that Pittsburgh's talent was a " key strategic element of the autonomy puzzle."

For Urmson and Bagnell, bringing Aurora to Pittsburgh was a homecoming of sorts. The pair pioneered work on autonomous vehicles at CMU. Urmson was director of technology on the university's 2007 team that won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge. Bagnell was a member of that team.

Urmson went to Google a year later. Bagnell remained at CMU as an associate professor in the university's Robotics Institute. In 2016, he went to Uber to head autonomy and perception.

The deals with VW and Hyundai are the first major announcements from Aurora.

"Working with Aurora, a leading self-driving system company, will give us a giant leap forward in our mission to become the world's leading provider of sustainable mobility, with self-driving vehicles," Johann Jungwirth, chief digital officer for Volkswagen Group, said in a statement. "For me this is the reinvention of mobility and the automobile."

Aurora already has experience working with cars produced by VW Group, the parent company to VW, Audi and several other brands. The company drove an Audi Q7 outfitted with cameras, lidar and sensors from Silicon Valley to Pittsburgh last year. The drive wasn't autonomous but the system collected data Aurora used to refine and bolster its self-driving technology.

Aurora and VW engineers have worked together for the last six months on sensors, hardware, software. VW last year unveiled SEDRIC, a self-driving pod concept car and its first public foray into autonomous vehicles.

Jungwirth said the company anticipates a future where people will use a VW mobility app, digital virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa or a button on a key fob to hail a self-driving car to take them from door-to-door.

"Our priority at Aurora is to make self-driving cars a reality quickly, broadly and safely, and we know we will get there faster by partnering with innovative automakers like the Volkswagen Group," Urmson said in a statement.

Hyundai intends to use its partnership with Aurora to bring self-driving cars to the road by 2021. The companies will first work together to put self-driving technology in custom-developed vehicles for use in test programs in pilot cities. Eventually, Hyundai and Aurora will put autonomous vehicles on the streets across the globe, the car maker said.

"Aurora is excited to partner with Hyundai Motor to make the social benefits of self-driving available globally," Urmson said in a statement.

Hyundai has been testing autonomous vehicles in Nevada since 2015. Last year, the company introduced its self-driving IONIQ models. In 2018, Hyundai will begin testing a next-generation, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle that it says will be ideal for incorporating self-driving technology.

©2018 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.