Volkswagen, Hyundai Turn to Aurora Innovation, Driverless Car Startup in Silicon Valley

Volkswagen AG last year imagined what a driverless vehicle could look like with the Sedric concept. PHOTO: VOLKSWAGEN

In the race to develop driverless cars, Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co. are placing bets on a Silicon Valley startup founded a year ago by the former leaders of autonomous vehicles at Google and Tesla.

Aurora Innovation Inc. on Thursday announced separate partnerships with the two auto makers, signaling the emergence of a potential rival to Waymo, the Google self-driving experiment that has morphed into a business unit of corporate parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL 0.87%

The young Palo Alto, Calif., startup has a pedigree of driverless-car experts but is no surefire bet, with only about a year under its belt. The support of two of the largest car companies could help propel Aurora in a nascent industry that is working to upend the future of personal transportation.

Executives from both VW and Hyundai said in interviews that they aim to put Aurora’s self-driving software in production vehicles by 2021.

Aurora is using a mixture of robotics and machine learning to create vision systems and driving policy programs that allow computers to pilot a car without people behind the wheel, as well as developing how those systems would work with lasers, radar and cameras to see and navigate the world.

The company is run by Chief Executive Chris Urmson, a roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University, who helped found Google’s self-driving car program in 2009 and led it after Sebastian Thrun left in 2014.

Mr. Urmson was among a wave of self-driving car engineers who left following the arrival of former Hyundai executive John Krafcik, who was hired by Alphabet in 2015 to run the project and turn it into a business. About a year ago, Mr. Urmson teamed up with Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell to found Aurora, which also has offices in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Anderson, a roboticist from MIT, had helped put Tesla Inc.’s semiautonomous driving system, called Autopilot, on the road while Mr. Bagnell, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, helped found Uber’s autonomous car group in Pittsburgh.

Many analysts expect the first deployment of self-driving technology to be through mobility services, such as robot taxis. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, predicts one-quarter of miles driven in the U.S. by 2030 may be through shared, self-driving vehicles.

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, Tim Higgins