Aurora Innovation is a company that likes to break barriers in Pittsburgh.
In 2007, one of its founders was part of a winning team for a competition that had autonomous vehicles navigating urban roads. In 2018, Aurora was the first startup to receive authorization from the state’s Department of Transportation to operate autonomous vehicles on public roads.
In 2020, it acquired Uber’s self-driving division — a much higher profile operation that once seemed like the leader to beat.
“It’s the combination of the people and the experience and the plan that’s going to position us to come out winning in this space,” said Gerardo Interiano, head of government relations for Aurora.
Aurora acquired Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, which has operations in the Strip District and a test track in Hazelwood Green, in December. The deal bought access to Uber’s talent and to a rideshare network that could one day power Aurora’s self-driving vehicles. At the same time, Uber invested $400 million in Aurora so the California-based tech giant will stay in the autonomous vehicle game but no longer have to foot the bill to fund research and development.
In a tight-knit industry where competing startups have founders who used to call each other colleagues and where everyone is in constant communication, Mr. Interiano said the acquisition puts Aurora ahead of the competition.
But that doesn’t mean they will be first to bring an autonomous car to market, to move passengers rather than goods.
“We don’t want to put a timeline on something because we want to get it right,” he said. “The reality is we’re going to do this when it’s safer than a human driver.”
Founded in 2017, Aurora started off with deep expertise and experience in the self-driving industry, with ties to Google’ self-driving car project, now called Waymo, Uber’s ATG and Tesla’s Autopilot.
It also had ties to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program and the school’s team for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Grand Challenge, a race to develop self-driving technology.
Chris Urmson, now Aurora co-founder and CEO, was part of the CMU team that first built autonomous vehicles to traverse desert lands and later urban environments. In 2007, the team took first place in the urban challenge.
The decision to found Aurora was a bit like “fortune cookie wisdom,” Mr. Urmson said at a webinar led by the Pittsburgh Technology Council in September.
Mr. Urmson, who first helped found Google’s self-driving project, left the search engine giant because he wasn’t enjoying the work as much as he once did.
Then, on a flight to Korea, he determined his next step was to “do something important with good people.”
After taking some time to work through what that really meant, Mr. Urmson teamed up with Sterling Anderson, who had worked on Tesla’s self-driving projects, and Drew Bagnell, a fellow CMU alum and one of the first people involved in Uber’s ATG.
The trio’s goal in founding the startup was to make transportation safer, more accessible and less expensive, Mr. Urmson said.
Now, the company is focused on building its “Aurora Driver,” a technology stack that fits in to existing vehicles and networks, whether that’s a car giving out rides to passengers on Uber’s network or a truck carrying goods across the country.
Partnerships are key to working with such technology.
“Whether it’s one of the big truck elites that’s been doing this for 100 years or auto manufacturers that’s been doing this for 100 years, that’s an incredibly complicated business that we don’t have the interest or ability to replicate,” Mr. Urmson said.
Uber, Lyft, FedEx, Amazon, “These are all companies that we don’t need to replicate, but we can make their businesses stronger.”
In addition to the Uber acquisition, Aurora has formed relationships with companies such as online retailer Amazon and automaker Fiat Chrysler. Aurora could also benefit from Uber’s existing connections, including a $1 billion investment from Toyota, Denso and Softbank’s Vision Fund in 2019.
“A lot of folks have decided. ‘we’re going to work only with one manufacturer, only on trucking, only on the movement of people,’” Mr. Interiano said. Not Aurora.
“We’re going to work on the technology and that allows us to work in every single one of those spaces.”
The Uber acquisition could help Aurora move people as it dispatches self-driving cars to pick up passengers calling for a ride to work or home from a night out. But before that, Aurora expects its driverless technology will first move goods.
The focus on autonomous trucking and logistics has been chosen in part because Aurora thinks it can “trade performance for safety early on,” Mr. Urmson said at the webinar.
For example, he said, if a self-driving vehicle carrying a passenger takes an overly cautious approach to driving (like waiting for an extra-long break in traffic to make a left turn), the rider may get annoyed. If a truck carrying loads of toilet paper does the same thing, the goods won’t have the same frustrations.
Aurora, which also has offices in the Bay Area in California, Dallas, Texas and Bozeman, Mont., set up its Pittsburgh headquarters in 2017 in Lawrenceville. The company announced in September plans to move its 150-person team to a new location in the Strip District next spring that offers more space for workers and the autonomous vehicles they are developing and testing.
In October 2018, Aurora became the first self-driving startup to receive authorization from the state’s Department of Transportation to operate its driverless cars on public roads. PennDOT issued the voluntary guidelines earlier that year as part of its efforts to increase safety oversight of highly automated vehicles.
The guidance came shortly after a fatal crash in Arizona involving one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.
Since launching in Pittsburgh, Aurora has taken steps to become a part of the community through job creation, advocacy efforts for autonomous vehicle regulations and, most recently, technology donations, Mr. Interiano said.
Aurora partnered with the Tech Council and community development organization Neighborhood Allies in April to provide laptops to students who need them for remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
If it sounds odd that a self-driving startup has thrown itself in to laptop donations, Mr. Interiano says it shouldn’t.
“First, we are a company. We are a corporation that is here in the city, and from our perspective, it is important for us to be civically engaged,” he said. “We want to find opportunities to be able to give back to this community.”
“We are asking, we are working with the citizens of this city to be able to test and deploy our technology which is incredibly exciting for us, but at the same time we want them to understand we are also committed to the future of this city.”