How self-driving startup Aurora is wooing carmakers - Ars Technica

Self-driving cars —

Prominent startup aims to make its self-driving stack an industry standard.

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AUSTIN, Texas - MARCH 09:  Chris Urmson speaks onstage at Featured Session: Self-Driving Cars: The Future is When? with Malcolm Gladwell & Chris Urmson during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW)

Enlarge / AUSTIN, Texas - MARCH 09: Chris Urmson speaks onstage at Featured Session: Self-Driving Cars: The Future is When? with Malcolm Gladwell & Chris Urmson during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW)

Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW

The self-driving startup Aurora is less than three years old, and it has yet to demonstrate its technology publicly. But the company, founded by former leaders of the Google, Uber, and Tesla self-driving projects, has assembled an impressive roster of customers. On Monday, the company announced that Fiat Chrysler was the latest automaker to become an Aurora partner.

Most self-driving companies are aiming to build vertically integrated taxi services. Google's Waymo, for example, is planning to offer driverless rides in the Phoenix suburbs. Waymo is planning to design the hardware and software for is vehicles and own and operate a taxi fleet. Other self-driving companies, including Uber, Zoox, and Voyage, are planning to take a similar approach.

This model relegates automakers—in Waymo's case, Jaguar and Fiat Chrysler—to the role of anonymous suppliers. Aurora is taking a different approach—one that's attractive to automakers who are accustomed to sitting at the apex of the automotive supply chain. Aurora aims to develop an autonomy stack it can license to car makers, allowing car makers to continue manufacturing and selling cars under their own brands.

Initially, Aurora's technology is likely to be sold in the form of driverless taxi rides rather than customer-owned vehicles. Aurora hasn't explained exactly how this will work. Maybe automakers will own and operate driverless taxi fleets themselves. Maybe they'll sell cars to third parties—Uber or Lyft, Avis or Zipcar—who run their own taxi fleets. Maybe Aurora and automakers will form joint ventures to operate the fleets. When I pressed Aurora CEO Chris Urmson for details on this a few months ago, he declined to get into specifics.

Regardless, Aurora's long-term goal is clear. The company hopes its platform will become an industry standard for autonomous vehicles, much as Microsoft Windows became standard for PCs 25 years ago.

Even before today's announcement, Aurora had significant partnerships in place with Volkswagen and Hyundai. Treating car companies as partners, rather than suppliers, gives them an incentive to use their considerable manufacturing and marketing resources to promote Aurora's platform.

"Our work with [FCA] focuses on preparing their vehicles with the interfaces the Aurora Driver requires to safely operate them," Aurora wrote in a Monday blog post. "Ultimately, this investment will allow our global automotive partners to build Aurora-Driver-compatible vehicles at scale."

Aurora's new deal with FCA also highlights Aurora's broad ambitions in another way: the company says that it will be focusing on commercial vehicles, allowing Aurora to offer "a variety of solutions to strategic customers in logistics, transit, and other use cases."

Aurora isn't the only company looking to apply its self-driving technology to a range of use cases. Waymo and Tesla are both aiming to develop self-driving semi trucks as well as passenger cars. But it's hard for a single company to tackle a wide range of markets simultaneously. Aurora is hoping that partners like FCA can help.


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