Aurora, the secretive self-driving car company founded by former Waymo engineer Chris Urmson, doesn’t do dog and pony shows. It doesn’t trot out its vehicles just to prove they exist or take journalists for test drives to demonstrate that the technology actually works. In fact, in the three years since Aurora launched, the public has heard very little about how the secretive Aurora plans to compete against Waymo, Ford, and General Motors.
From an article in The Verge by Zoe Schiffer.
After months of announcements — the company acquired a LIDAR sensor maker, hired a VP of hardware, and took an investment from Amazon — that finally appears to be changing. Just before the New Year, Urmson’s co-founders Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell hosted a rare media event to talk about their technology and take journalists for test drives. It was, in other words, a dog and pony show.
“These vehicles look like garbage because they’re test vehicles,” Anderson said, before ushering us outside to try them out. The vehicles, a fleet of Lincoln MKZs, did not look like garbage; they looked functional and exceedingly clean. Inside, screens mounted on the backs of the front seats displayed a dynamic map with moving blocks and blinking lights. It was the world around us, interpreted through the “eyes” of the car.
“It’s the main line of our software,” Urmson tells me in a phone call the following week. (He missed the event because of a cold.) “It wasn’t some kind of weird, pulled off to the side, polished for demo. It was our core developer branch.”
It was this software that powered me along at about 20 miles per hour, accompanied by two of Aurora’s safety drivers and a journalist from NPR. As we pulled away from the venue, an oncoming vehicle nudged into our lane, prompting Aurora’s car to brake abruptly. The safety drivers seemed unperturbed. While their hands stayed on the wheel, they were observing the car in a relaxed manner, and they didn’t seem to need to take control. After successfully completing multiple left-hand turns near distracted pedestrians — the gold standard, I am told, for autonomous vehicles — the car seemed to recover its dignity, depositing us back at the venue without incident.
To date, Aurora has raised $690 million in funding, and Urmson has been hailed as the “Henry Ford of autonomous vehicles,” thanks to his work helping to pioneer Google’s self-driving car initiative. His co-founders have equally prestigious backgrounds: Sterling Anderson helped lead Tesla’s Model X project, while Bagnell ran a research lab at Carnegie Mellon then left to work on autonomous vehicles at Uber.
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