In Hot Pursuit
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 19, 2021
Chris Urmson’s company, Aurora, has merged with Uber’s self-driving unit to take on Waymo
By Ira Boudway

On Feb. 11, about a month after closing on the acquisition of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, or ATG, the self-driving-car startup Aurora held an all-hands meeting. Like every other company meeting since the pandemic began, it took place via video-conference, and included the simulacra of in- person office interactions. When managers handed out awards, there was no applause from co-workers. Instead, Aurora co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Chris Urmson hit a button that produced canned cheers and clapping. “I am so looking forward to not having that button,” Urmson said after setting it off for the third time.

The weeks leading up to the meeting had been full of upheaval at Aurora Innovation Inc. Uber Technologies Inc. had essentially paid it to take ATG, forking over $400 million for a stake in the combined enterprise, which was valued at $10 billion. The deal allows Uber to unload a unit that was hemorrhaging cash while keeping a foothold in autonomous vehicles. Aurora, in return, adds almost 1,000 employees, more than doubling its workforce to 1,600 and bolstering its bid to become a credible competitor to Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo. The deal also gives Aurora what could be a bigger prize: the right to provide robo-taxis to Uber’s ride-hailing network.

“Having a strategic relationship with Uber is an incredible advantage,” Urmson says. Over the past two decades he’s done more than perhaps anyone to push the development of autonomous-driving technology. Now he’s in a leading position to be the first to truly commercialize it. But with the addition of hundreds of highly paid engineers and a large pool of potential customers, Urmson is under more pressure than ever to bring a product to market.

Since co-founding the company in January 2017— with former Tesla engineer Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, who came from ATG—Urmson has been lining up deals to ensure that buyers will be waiting when his robot drivers are ready. The plan is to begin with long-haul trucking. Earlier this year, Paccar Inc. and Volvo Group signed agreements to install Aurora’s automated driving system in their trucks. The two companies would then offer these trucks, capable of operating themselves for long stretches, to their shipping customers, who would pay Aurora for the hours of automated driving.

After establishing itself in trucking, Aurora would begin cherry-picking the easiest, most lucrative trips from Uber’s ride-hailing network. A customer looking to go 25 miles, mostly by highway in light traffic, might be greeted by a driverless car. Aurora already has a deal with Toyota Motor Corp. to build robo-taxi fleets.

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