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SAN FRANCISCO — The new year is barely off the starting line and the self-driving car race already has kicked into a higher gear.
Chris Urmson, formerly head of Google's self-driving car program, announced Thursday that his new company Aurora has inked partnerships with Volkswagen Group and Hyundai aimed at helping both automakers accelerate their autonomous car programs.
"Our mission is to get this tech out quickly, safely and broadly," says Urmson, who left Google's program, now called Waymo, in 2016. "Only when you bring this technology to market at scale will you see big safety and economic benefits. Aurora is targeting that objective."
Buttressing Volkswagen's engineering team with Aurora makes sense given the current autonomous car gold rush, VW Group Chief Digital Officer Johann Jungwirth said. VW announced last year that it would roll out a self-driving vehicle based on a prototype called Sedric by 2021.
Experts predict this coming transportation pivot will reap billions in revenues for industry leaders as self-driving mobility-as-a-service options gradually supplement or supplant car ownership.
"There are more than 50 companies out there trying to provide the technological know-how to power this change in transportation, but only a handful, in the end, will be setting the standard," Jungwirth says. "This is a huge opportunity for us" to focus on the most automated of cars.
Those vehicles, called Level 4 and 5 in the industry, are capable of driving themselves in most or all conditions without driver input. Many automakers anticipate that such vehicles will eventually not have pedals or a steering wheel. Some makers envision the cars becoming moving entertainment areas — living rooms on wheels.
"These cars will become a room from your home. They'll be your gym or your movie theater or your gaming room or lounge," Jungwirth says.
WoongJun Jang, director of Hyundai's Advanced Drivers Assistance System Development Group, said the South Korean automaker was attracted to Aurora due to its "diverse range of experience in this field," adding that it hopes the start-up will speed up its efforts to bring autonomous technology to market.
Hyundai says its Aurora-powered self-driving cars will debut by 2021 and initially will focus on models "custom-developed for test programs in places such as China's Future City," a reference to the MIT-China Future City Lab program launched last year that, in part, is meant to provide start-ups with a place to test new transportation technology.
Aurora has been quietly testing its self-driving car software and sensor hardware since last August. That was shortly after Urmson founded the company with industry veterans Sterling Anderson, a former director of Tesla's semi-autonomous Autopilot program, and Drew Bagnell, who led Uber's autonomy and perception team.
Automotive manufacturers increasingly are joining forces with tech start-ups in order to ensure they don't get left behind in the coming transportation shift to vehicles that are capable of driving themselves.
Although major hurdles remain — including federal and state regulations as well as consumer confidence — most stakeholders are predicting consumer-ready autonomous vehicles will arrive in the next two or three years.
General Motors recently announced that it would roll out a self-driving ride-hailing fleet by 2019, anchored to its $1 billion purchase of autonomous tech start-up Cruise Automation. Ford also spent $1 billion a year ago to get its own in-house autonomous car firm, Argo.ai. And Google made a deal with Fiat Chrysler to outfit Chrysler Pacifica minivans with Waymo tech in order to launch its ongoing consumer trial in Phoenix.
Aurora's partnership deal with the VW Group — a massive organization that includes brands such as Audi, Porsche and Bugatti — calls for integrating self-driving tech into everything from "fully self-driving pods, shuttles or delivery vans to self-driving trucks without a cabin."
Aurora and VW engineers have been working together for the past six months to test the start-up's software and hardware, Urmson says.
Unlike driver-assist features developed by companies such as Tesla and Audi, Aurora is focused entirely on creating technology that enables vehicles to operate without human input.
"This tech is not easy, and not everyone will get across the finish line," Urmson says. "That's why it's better to enter into partnerships as opposed to trying to claim all this space for yourself."
Self-driving car proponents argue that such vehicles will drastically cut into the 40,000 U.S. road deaths a year that are attributable to driver error. Skeptics counter that autonomous technology still has a long way to go before it can handle every traffic situation or road and weather conditions that are not optimal.
Aurora has offices in Palo Alto, Calif., and Pittsburgh, the latter both to accommodate self-driving car experts "who might not be interesting in moving to Silicon Valley and for us to be able to test cars in tougher weather," says former Tesla engineer Anderson, who declined to detail Aurora's financing.
"We have had what we've needed to build out our team aggressively, and now with these partnerships we'll be hiring aggressively across all spectrums," Anderson says.
Urmson says his decision to start Aurora with other autonomous car veterans had to do with happiness.
"I didn't leave Google just to strike out on my own," he says. "At the end of the day, I wasn't enjoying myself anymore (at Google), and to function at my best it's important for me to enjoy what I'm doing. I came to the conclusion that what I wanted to do was build a company with the right leadership and the right approach to connecting with the auto industry. We want to have an impact."
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