Aurora, a Silicon Valley-based developer of software and hardware for autonomous vehicles, is expanding tests of self-driving delivery vans and trucks in Texas as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic pushes companies that initially prioritized robotaxi services to instead focus on logistics.
In the weeks ahead the company will test a small fleet of vehicles in the Dallas-Fort Worth region operated by its Aurora Driver software and outfitted with its new “FirstLight” laser lidar sensor. It will run tests on commercial routes at the center of heavily used delivery corridors, first using some of its Chrysler Pacifica minivans modified as delivery vehicles and then followed by Class-8 semi-trucks. Aurora didn’t say how many vehicles will be used or identify companies it will be working with for the tests.
“While the Driver will ultimately move both people and goods, our first commercial product will be in trucking – where the market is largest today, the unit economics are best and the level of service requirements is most accommodating,” the company said. More than 10% of all long-haul truckers in the U.S. drive in Texas, according to Aurora. “Texas’ role as a crucial state in the movement of goods makes it a natural place for Aurora’s expanded testing. With more public road miles than any other state, Texas understands that self-driving technology will have a critical safety impact for those who drive on its roads.”
Billions of dollars have flowed into dozens of startups and subsidiaries of tech giants in the past four years to perfect the software, sensors and computing power needed for safe, reliable self-driving vehicles. Alphabet’s Waymo is the farthest along toward commercializing robotaxis, but technical hurdles and health concerns triggered by the coronavirus have complicated the timetable for that business. That’s led Waymo to place new emphasis on its Via automated logistics business and influenced a similar move by Aurora. The company is also a member of Forbes’ AI 50 list, along with startups Nuro, TuSimple and Pony.ai which are also developing autonomous delivery and trucking services.
Aurora, founded by former Google +3.1%GOOGL Self-Driving Project chief Chris Urmson and autonomous tech veterans from Tesla TSLA +9.5% and Uber UBER +3.4%, got off to a big start by raising $530 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, T. Rowe Price TROW +0.3% and Amazon AMZN +7.9% in early 2019, raising its total funding to nearly $700 million. Yet an early partnership with Volkswagen concluded last year and Aurora’s engineering relationship with Hyundai Motor also appears to have wrapped up for now. In the wake of Amazon’s plan to acquire robotaxi startup Zoox, there is speculation Aurora could also be purchased. It may also be in need of a major automotive alliance as the self-driving industry consolidates.
The company’s Texas plans come a week after TuSimple and Navistar announced a partnership to build self-driving semis that will be sold commercially by 2024.