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Aurora Innovation Joins Pittsburgh's Self-Driving Tech Industry

The company has quietly opened an office in Pittsburgh, basing about half its staff there and half in Palo Alto, Calif.

by Aaron Aupperlee, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / May 4, 2017

(TNS) -- Another self-driving car company has rolled into Pittsburgh.

It's headed by autonomous driving veterans and leaders from three undisputed heavyweights in the field: Tesla, Google and Uber.

But you probably haven't heard of them.

Aurora Innovation was started by Sterling Anderson, the former director of Autopilot; Chris Urmson, the former CTO of Google's self-driving car efforts, and Drew Bagnell, who headed autonomy and perception at Uber's Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh.

Chris Urmson, Drew Bagnell and Sterling Anderson

The company has quietly opened an office in Pittsburgh, basing about half its staff here and half in Palo Alto, Calif. Aurora's car, a 2017 Audi Q7, recently drove from Silicon Valley to the Steel City, collecting nearly 3,000 miles of data along the way that it's using to refine its self-driving models.

"We see Pittsburgh talent as a key strategic element of the autonomy puzzle and wanted to make sure our footprint reflected that," Anderson told the Tribune-Review in one of the few interviews he's given about the new company.

Anderson was hesitant to reveal some details about Aurora's activities in Pittsburgh. He wouldn't say how many people are based here or where the office is located.

What isn't a secret is Pittsburgh's growing self-driving ecosystem. Carnegie Mellon University has been at it for decades. It's been nearly a year since Uber announced it was actively testing autonomous vehicles on the city's streets and in that time, several self-driving companies have set up shop. Delphi is testing its technology on Pittsburgh's streets. Argo AI headquartered its offices in the Strip District after it received $1 billion from Ford. And companies like Edge Case Research have flourished to support the industry.

Urmson and Bagnell 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 to lead the company's self-driving car project. Bagnell remained at CMU as an associate professor in the university's Robotics Institute. In 2016, he went to Uber's Advanced Technology Center.

Anderson worked on self-driving technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Urmson took notice of his work and invited him to Google to talk to his autonomous vehicle team. Anderson ended up at Tesla, where he headed the Model X project and the company's Autopilot program.

The three kept in touch and founded Aurora about four months ago. They've stayed relatively quiet about their company.

In January, Tesla sued Aurora, Anderson and Urmson. Tesla withdrew the lawsuit less than three months later and a Santa Clara County, Calif., judge dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning Tesla can't re-file it.

The lawsuit alleged Anderson tried to recruit Tesla engineers to Aurora Innovation in violation of his non-solicitation agreement with his former company. It also accused Anderson of taking confidential Tesla information and destroying evidence to cover it up.

Anderson and Aurora disputed the allegations all along and pointed to Tesla withdrawing the suit even before the first court date as proof there was nothing to it.

Aurora won't solicit Tesla employees until February, which the company couldn't do because of Anderson's original non-solicitation agreement with the company, and Aurora will reimburse Tesla $100,000 for an independent forensic audit of Aurora.

Anderson said the Tesla lawsuit won't affect the company moving forward. The company has about $6.1 million in self-funding and from close advisors. It plans to launch a substantial funding round this year.

Aurora has nine positions listed on its website. All are in Pittsburgh and Palo Alto.

Anderson sees Aurora developing and designing the hardware, software and data analytic systems for auto manufacturers to integrate into their production models. Aurora will work with auto parts suppliers and manufacturers to make sure everything works together, Anderson said. Think of Aurora's role in the auto industry as similar to Microsoft's in the PC industry. Microsoft designed and developed Windows and then worked with PC companies to integrate it in the systems.

"Players should play their positions," Anderson said, meaning that Aurora will let automakers do what they're good at, making cars, and will look for camera and sensor companies that are good at that. Aurora will likely write its own software.

Aurora expects to start testing its cars in Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley later this year.

But don't expect to see an Aurora car or the company's logo on the hood of sedans at the dealership. Just like you might not know what company made the airbag or stereo in your car now, you also might not know that Aurora is behind the self-driving tech.

And that's OK with Anderson and the Aurora team.

"We want to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the benefits of self-driving," Anderson said. "Our hope is simply to make a positive difference and catalyze this important change in mobility."

©2017 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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