Aurora Innovation Inc., a Silicon Valley-based autonomous-driving startup with at least a $10 billion valuation, has agreed to a long-term strategic partnership with Toyota Motor Corp. and its supplier Denso Corp. that aims to mass produce autonomous vehicles and launch them on ride-hailing networks, including Uber's, over the next few years. The first model that will be equipped with the Aurora Driver, the company's hardware, software and sensor suite, is the Toyota Sienna minivan, with testing of an initial fleet to begin this year. Toyota, which overtook Volkswagen AG as the world's top-selling automaker in 2020, is also an investor in Uber Technologies Inc. and has a formidable brand that has long been associated with high volume manufacturing and safety. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Toyota will gain an observer seat on Aurora's board. "This is a really exciting set of developments," said Sterling Anderson, Aurora's Chief Product Officer, in an interview.
Eighteen months ago, Uber's self-driving car unit, Uber Advanced Technologies Group, was valued at $7.25 billion following a $1 billion investment from Toyota, DENSO and SoftBank's Vision Fund. Now, it's up for sale and a competing autonomous vehicle technology startup is in talks with Uber to buy it, according to three sources familiar with the deal. Aurora Innovation, the startup founded by three veterans of the autonomous vehicle industry who led programs at Google, Tesla and Uber, is in negotiations to buy Uber ATG. Terms of the deal are still unknown, but sources say the two companies have been in talks since October and it is far along in the process. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment, citing that the company's general policy is not to comment on these sorts of inquiries.
Progress on self-driving technology has been slower than many people expected just a few years ago. Google's Waymo was aiming to launch a fully driverless taxi service by the end of 2018 but missed its deadline. GM's Cruise abandoned plans to launch a commercial service in 2019. Tesla has repeatedly fallen short of Elon Musk's optimistic timelines for delivering fully self-driving technology. They have plenty of cash and can keep working on the problem as long as they need to. But it is a big challenge for some of their competitors: independent self-driving startups that rely on venture capital to stay afloat.
At the end of last year, it looked like Uber's self-driving cars were done for good when autonomous vehicle tech startup Aurora took over its robocars unit as part of a $400 million deal. But now Aurora is reviving a driverless ride-hailing service. Aurora announced Tuesday that by the end of this year it'll design, build, and start testing a fleet of self-driving Toyota Sienna minivans. The cars will be equipped with the Aurora Driver autonomous system through another partnership with automotive parts supplier Denso. While Aurora has previously tested on Chrysler Pacifica minivans, this will be the first fleet of autonomous Siennas.
The autonomous vehicle industry is looking a lot like a middle-school dance. Monday, Aurora and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced they would work together to put the startup's self-driving tech, called Aurora Driver, into FCA's commercial vehicles, including cargo vans and Ram pickup trucks. On Tuesday, word leaked that Aurora and Volkswagen had discontinued their 18-month joint effort to build an urban robotaxi system. Wednesday, Aurora and Hyundai said they're doubling down on their own partnership, with the South Korean company (and its conglomerate partner, Kia) pouring more money into Aurora's now $600 million Series B financing round. The companies will continue to work together to build Aurora's tech into Hyundai's hydrogen-powered Nexo.