Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson on the company’s new investor, Amazon, and much more

You might not think of self-driving technologies and politics
having much in common, but at least in one way, they overlap
meaningfully: yesterday’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally.

Such was the message we gleaned Thursday night, at a
small industry
event
 in San Francisco, where we had the chance to sit down
with Chris Urmson, the cofounder and CEO of Aurora, a company that (among many
others) is trying to transform how both people and goods are
moved.

It was a big day for Urmson. Earlier the same day, his
two-year-old company announced a whopping
$530 million in Series B funding
, a round that was led by top
firm Sequoia Capital and that included “significant investment”
from T. Rowe Price and Amazon.

The round for Aurora — which is building what it calls a
“driver” technology that it expects to eventually integrate
into cars built by Volkswagen, Hyundai, and China’s Byten, among
others —  is highly notable, even in a sea of giant fundings.
Not only does it represent Sequoia’s first biggest bet yet on any
kind of self-driving technology, it’s also an “incredible
endorsement” from T. Rowe Price, said Urmson Thursday night,
suggesting it shows the outfit “thinks long term and
strategically [that] we’re the independent option to self-driving
cars.”

Yet perhaps the most interesting facet to the round is that it
includes Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies,
which could lead to variety of scenarios down the road, from Aurora
powering delivery fleets overseen by Amazon, to being acquired
outright by the company. Amazon has already begun marketing more
aggressively to global car companies and and Tier 1 suppliers that
are focused on building connected products, saying its AWS platform
can help them
speed their pace of innovation and lower their cost structures
.
In November, it also
debuted a global, autonomous racing league
for 1/18th scale,
radio-controlled, self-driving four-wheeled race cars that are
designed to help developers learn about reinforcement learning, a
type of machine learning. Imagine what it could learn from
Aurora.

Indeed, at the event, Urmson said that as Aurora had
“constructed our funding round, [we were] very much thinking
strategically about how to be successful in our mission of building
a driver and one thing that a driver can do is move people, but it
can also move goods, and it’s harder to think of a company where
moving goods is more important than Amazon.” Calling Amazon
“incredibly technically savvy,” to boot, he said that “having
the opportunity to have them partner with us in this funding round,
and [talk about] what we might build in the future is
awesome.”

Aurora’s site also now features language about “transforming the way people and goods
move
.”

The interest of Amazon, T. Rowe, Sequoia and Aurora’s other
backers isn’t surprising. Urmson was the formal technical lead
of Google’s self-driving car program (now Waymo). One of his
cofounders, Drew Bagnell, is a machine learning expert who still
teaches at Carnegie Mellon and was formerly the head of Uber’s
autonomy and perception team. His third cofounder is Sterling
Anderson, the former program manager of Tesla’s Autopilot
team.

Aurora’s big news seemingly spooked Tesla investors, in fact,
with shares in the electric car maker drooping as
a media outlets reported on the details. The development seems like
just the type of possibility that had Tesla CEO Elon Musk unsettled
when Aurora got off the ground a couple of years ago, and Tesla
almost immediately filed a lawsuit against it, accusing Urmson and
Andersonn of trying poach at least a dozen Tesla engineers and
accusing Anderson of taking confidential information and destroying
the  evidence “in
an effort to cover his tracks
.”

That suit was dropped two and a half weeks later in a settlement
that saw Aurora pay $100,000. Anderson said
at the time
the amount was meant to cover the cost of an
independent auditor to scour Aurora’s systems for confidential
Tesla information. Urmson reiterated on Thursday night was purely
an “economic decision,” meant to keep Aurora from getting
further embroiled in an expansive spat.

But invited to talk about his relationship with Musk on
Thursday, Urmson, who has previously called Tesla’s lawsuit
classy,”
declined to take the bait, telling the audience instead that Aurora
and Musk, “got off on the wrong foot.” Laughing a bit, he went
on to lavish some praise on the self-driving technology that lives
inside Tesla cars, adding that “if there’s an opportunity to
work them in the future, that’d be great.”

Aurora, which is also competing for now against the likes of
Uber, also sees Uber as a potential partner down the line, said
Urmson. Asked about the company’s costly self-driving efforts,
whose scale has been drastically downsized in the eleven months
since one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe,
Arizona, Urmson noted again that Aurora is “in the business of
delivering the driver, and Uber needs a lot of drivers, so we think
it would be wonder to partner with them, to partner with Lyft, to
partner [with companies with similar ambitions] globally. We see
those companies as partners in the future.” (He’d added that
there’s “nothing to talk about right now.”)

Before Thursday’s event, Aurora had sent us some more detailed
information about the four divisions that currently employ the 200
people that make up the company, a number that will obviously
expand with its new round, which it plans to use to grow its
current talent, hire many people, and to expand the testing it’s
doing, both on California roads and in Pittsburgh, where it also
has a sizable presence.

We didn’t have a chance to run them during our conversation
with Urmson, but we thought they were interesting and that you
might think so, too.

Below is the “hub” of the Aurora Driver. This is the
computer system that powers, coordinates and fuses signals from all
of the vehicle’s sensors, executes the software and controls the
vehicle. Aurora says it’s designing the Aurora Driver to
seamlessly integrate with a wide variety of vehicle platforms from
different makes, models and classes with the goal of delivering the
benefits of its technology broadly.

Below, is a visual representation of Aurora’s perception
system, which it says is able to understand complex urban
environments where vehicles need to safely navigate amongst many
moving objects including bicycles, scooters, pedestrians and
cars.

It didn’t imagine it would at the outset, but Aurora is
building its mapping system to ensure what it naturally calls the
highest level of precision and scalability so that vehicles powered
by the company can accurately understand where they are, and easily
update the maps as the world changes. We asked Urmson if, when the
tech is finally ready to go into cars, they will white label the
technology or use Aurora’s brand as a selling point. He said the
matter hasn’t been decided yet but seemed to suggest that Aurora
is leaning in the latter direction. He also said the technology
would be installed on the carmakers’ factory floors (with
Aurora’s help).

One of the ways that Aurora says it’s able to efficiently
develop a robust “driver” is to build its own simulation
system. It uses its simulator to test its software with different
scenarios that vehicles encounter on the road, which it says
enables repeatable testing that’s impossible to achieve by just
driving more miles.

Aurora’s motion planning team works closely with the
perception team to create a system that both detects the important
objects on and around the road, and tries to accurately predict how
they will move in the future. The ability to capture, understand
and predict the motion of other objects is critical for building a
technology that can navigate real world scenarios in dense urban
environments and Urmson has said in the past that Aurora has
crafted this workflow in a way that’s superior to competitors
that send the technology back and forth. Specifically, he
told The Atlantic last year
: “The classic way you engineer a
system like this is that you have a team working on perception.
They go out and make it as good as they can and they get to a
plateau and hand it off to the motion-planning people. And they
write the thing that figures out where to stop or how to change a
lane and it deals with all the noise that’s in the perception
system because it’s not seeing the world perfectly. It has
errors. Maybe it thinks it’s moving a little faster or slower
than it is. Maybe every once in a while it generates a false
positive. The motion-planning system has to respond to that.

“So the motion-planning people are lagging behind the
perception people, but they get it all dialed in and it’s working
well enough—as well as it can with that level of perception—and
then the perception people say, ‘Oh, but we’ve got a new push
[of code].’ Then the motion-planning people are behind the eight
ball again, and their system is breaking when it
shouldn’t.”

We also asked Urmson about Google, whose self-driving unit was
renamed Waymo as it spun out from the Alphabet umbrella as its own
company. He was highly diplomatic, saying only good things about
the company and, when asked if they’d ever challenged him on
anything since leaving, answering that they had not. Still, he told
as, as he has said in previous interviews, that the biggest
advantage that Aurora enjoys is that it was able to use the
learnings of its three founders and to start from scratch, whereas
the big companies from which they’ve each come cannot.

As he
told TechCrunch
in a separate interview last year in a question
about how Aurora tests its technology, “There’s this really
easy metric that everyone is using, which is number of miles
driven, and it’s one of those things that was really convenient
for me in my old place [Google] because we’re out there and we
were doing a hell of a lot more than anybody else was at the time
and so it was an easy number to talk about. What’s lost in that,
though, is it’s not really the volume of the miles that you
drive. It’s really about the quality of them.”

Source: FS – All Tech News 2
Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson on the company’s new investor, Amazon, and much more