Self-driving startup Aurora Innovation Inc. today said it had raised $530 million in a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital. The most noteworthy investor is Amazon.com Inc.
Other participants included Lightspeed Venture Partners, Geodesic, Shell Ventures, and Reinvent Capital, as well as previous investors Greylock and Index Ventures. Funds advised by T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. also made a “significant” contribution, the company said. Carl Eschenbach, a partner at Sequoia, will join Aurora’s board of directors.
A year ago, Aurora raised $90 million in its Series A round. Reid Hoffman, a partner at Greylock and co-founder of LinkedIn, and Index partner Mike Volpi joined its board at that time. Aurora is working with partners including Hyundai and Volkswagen, and the latest funding reportedly puts its valuation at $2.5 billion.
While Amazon may have invested in other self-driving vehicle makers in the past, the Aurora funding marks an acceleration of its efforts. There’s no doubt that Amazon is interested in developing an autonomous delivery fleet, whether in the air or on the ground. “Amazon’s delivery costs exceeded $27 billion in 2018,” noted CNBC.
Last month, Amazon began testing its Scout delivery robots in Seattle, and an Embark autonomous delivery truck pulling an Amazon trailer has been spotted on roads. This multi-pronged and multi-million-dollar effort is keeping competitors in robotics, retail, logistics, and motor vehicles on their toes.
It’s not the years; it’s the mileage
Aurora was founded in 2017 by three leaders in self-driving vehicle research. CEO Chris Urmson previously led the Carnegie Mellon University team that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge and former chief technology officer at Google parent Alphabet. Chief Product Officer Sterling Anderson worked on MIT’s Intelligent Co-Pilot in 2007 and led the design, development, and launch of the Tesla Model X and Telsa Autopilot. CTO Drew Bagnell was a founding member of Carnegie Robotics and Uber’s Advanced Technology Center.
“At Aurora, we’re building a driver, and that driver we think can move people, and ultimately, it will move goods as well,” Urmson told Bloomberg Technology. “We look at Amazon and see this incredible logistics company, and we look at an opportunity to help them with that over time.”
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is developing the Aurora Driver “full stack” of self-driving technology with the objectives of increasing safety, expanding access to people with disabilities, and improving the quality of life and urban congestion. Aurora said it will use its latest funding to expand its team and ecosystem. Urmson said that Aurora is conducting testing in California and Pennsylvania.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) has promoted its storage, compute, and deep learning capacity for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicle development. The AWS DeepRacer is a small remote-controlled car for testing hardware and software, and AWS RoboMaker includes tools to train reinforcement learning for self-driving vehicles.
Aurora moves up in a crowded field
With its founders’ pedigree and the millions in funding, Aurora has quietly joined the many companies working on autonomous vehicles, with traditional automakers such as Continental, Ford, and Toyota on the one hand and newer tech firms such as Google’s Waymo spinoff, Tesla, NVIDIA, and LG Electronics on the other.
However, several of these enterprises have reached across their lanes for partnerships, such as Waymo working with Nissan-Renault. SoftBank and Honda contributed to the $5 billion invested in GM’s Cruise unit last year. Similarly, Volkswagen and Ford are considering funding Argo AI.
Aurora is also working with automakers including Volkswagen and Hyundai. “For many of them, they’re going to move from being carmakers to companies that provide mobility,” Urmson said. “The key ingredient to that is having a driver in their system, and that’s what Aurora brings to them.”
In addition, the German automakers have joined forces to better compete with the U.S. and Japan in self-driving car development. As lidar maker Quanergy’s troubles demonstrate, technical and business challenges persist, and the road to success is still winding.
The self-driving car space suffered some setbacks last year after highly publicized accidents involving Tesla, Uber, and Waymo. Unlike some of its competitors, Aurora is deliberately working on Level 4 autonomy, in which humans are still involved, rather than full Level 5 autonomy.
“Like anything that’s transformational, it takes a while to figure out,” Urmson said. “We think there’s lots of room for others to play.”