Aurora, the developer of self-driving technology run by a trio of industry veterans, has signed a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, to figure out how to build its “Driver” into FCA’s commercial vehicles. By “Driver,” Aurora means its full self-driving system, all the hardware and software it uses to guide a vehicle through the world. And though everything else about the announcement remains vague, it points to an open-ended strategy on Aurora’s part.
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
The two companies did not disclose the financial terms of the deal, or say when or how Aurora’s autonomous tech might make its way into those vehicles. FCA’s lineup of commercial vehicles includes cargo vans and Ram pickup trucks that use huge diesel engines to haul six tons or more, used by businesses to move goods and materials around cities and construction sites; that offers Aurora a way into the logistics business.
Aurora was founded in late 2016 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson, and Drew Bagnell, formerly of Google, Tesla, and Uber, respectively. CEO Urmson harps on the value of experience, knowing what sorts of approaches work and which don’t.
That experience, apparently, says to be very open about choosing partners. Aurora has similar, ongoing deals with Volkswagen, Hyundai, and electric vehicle startup Byton. It has built its system into a variety of vehicles, including sedans, SUVs, and a semi-truck.
For its part, FCA provides the hybrid Pacifica minivans that Waymo uses for testing and its Arizona ride-hail service. This sort of cooperation is majorly helpful for the self-driving developers. Instead of hacking into car computers and sticking their sensors on roof racks, they can more seamlessly integrate both software and hardware into their robotic chariots. It’s less obvious what the automakers get from the deal; it’s worth noting that the companies with which Aurora has partnered don’t have especially robust in-house autonomous operations.
What’s striking about this deal, adding commercial vans and small trucks to its quiver, is that it further expands the fields in which Aurora is working to deploy its technology. Competitors like Waymo, Uber, Ford, and GM have focused on robotifying the ride-hail business, and offering their own taxi-like services. Several smaller, newer outfits have devoted themselves to long-haul trucking, and plan to retrofit semis with their gizmos. (Waymo also dabbles in trucking; Uber used to.) Zoox and Nuro are creating entirely new vehicles, purpose-built for ride-hail and local deliveries, respectively.
In one sense, Aurora wants to generalize. It is open to working its self-driving technology into any kind of vehicle, for any purpose. From another perspective, it’s a specialist. While its competitors are working to manufacture their own vehicles and run their own logistical operations, it remains focused on its “Driver” system.
While you could read that openness as a lack of direction, it might be the right way forward here. For all the hype around the business of self-driving—a space Intel has predicted could add $7 trillion to the world’s economy by 2050—no one’s making money yet. It’s not yet clear whether trucking startups can please their investors without taking the serious step of releasing the driver from the cab (all operations to date have kept a human in the driver’s seat). The ongoing struggles of Uber and Lyft highlight how hard it is to make money off of ride-hail. So for now, Aurora is staying open minded, ready to move in any direction that looks promising. And whatever comes of this FCA deal, it’ll be just one bet among many.