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Toyota Enters into a Strategic Partnership with Silicon Valley Startup Aurora on Autonomous Driving Technology

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【Summary】Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp is the latest automaker to partner with a tech startup on the development of autonomous driving technology. On Tuesday, Silicon Valley startup Aurora innovation Inc. announced a strategic partnership with Toyota to add autonomous driving capabilities to its future models, beginning with the popular Toyota Sienna minivan.

Eric Walz    Feb 10, 2021 8:30 AM PT
Toyota Enters into a Strategic Partnership with Silicon Valley Startup Aurora on Autonomous Driving Technology

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp is the latest automaker to partner with a tech startup on the development of autonomous driving technology, joining General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen, all of which have entered into strategic partnerships with self-driving startups.

On Tuesday, Silicon Valley startup Aurora innovation Inc. announced a partnership with Toyota to add autonomous driving capabilities to its future models, beginning with the popular Toyota Sienna minivan.

Aurora was founded in 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, three industry veterans in the field of autonomous driving. With its experienced team, the company is emerging as a leader in autonomous driving development.

Urmson led Google's self-driving car project which has now become its autonomous driving division Waymo. Anderson is a former Tesla employee and led the teams that developed Tesla's Autopilot automated driving system.

While Bagnell spent two decades in the field as an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was recruited  by Uber in 2016 along with dozens of other scientists and researchers from the school's world renowned robotics program as Uber tried to jumpstart its work on self-driving vehicles at the ride-hailing company's Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG). 

Bagnell was instrumental in developing the perception systems for Uber's first self-driving vehicles. 

Aurora set out to build a self-driving system it calls "Aurora Driver'' and with the collective experience of its founders quickly developed a reputation as one of the most promising self-driving technology startups in Silicon Valley. 

The Aurora Driver is an entire software stack and combines AI, data visualization, cloud infrastructure, and deep learning inference. It's designed to be added to existing vehicles, including autonomous delivering vehicles, or long-haul self-driving trucks. It can even be sold to other automakers. 

The collaboration between Aurora and Toyota has two primary goals. The first is to bring engineering teams together to develop and test driverless-capable vehicles equipped with the "Aurora Driver", which is the company's autonomous driving stack of software and hardware that will be added to the Toyota Sienna minivan. 

By the end of 2021, the partners, including Toyota's supplier Denso, are expected to have designed, built, and begun testing an initial fleet of these Siennas.

"This is a really exciting set of developments," said Sterling Anderson, Aurora's Chief Product Officer, in an interview with Bloomberg. "We're partnering with the largest automaker and the largest ride hailing network. It's not just the development of the vehicle, but development of the service."

The partnership will also lay the groundwork for the mass-production, launch, and support of the vehicles with Toyota on ride-hailing networks, including Uber's, over the next few years. 

As part of this long-term effort, Aurora will be exploring mass production of key autonomous driving components with Denso and provide support for Toyota for when these vehicles are deployed at scale.

"Toyota is dedicated to creating and realizing mobility for all by focusing on technology that will move people safely and responsibly, a vision Aurora shares with us," said Keiji Yamamoto, operating officer of Toyota and President of Connected Company, said in a statement. 

Toyota's strategic partnership with Aurora is the latest of several high-profile partnerships established between automakers and autonomous driving startups in the past several years.

General Motors invested $1 billion on San Francisco startup Cruise in 2016 to help the company development autonomous driving technology. GM and Cruise are planning to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service using a fleet of self-driving GM's vehicles using the Cruise technology.

Both Ford Motor Co and Volkswagen invested in Pittsburgh-based startup Argo.AI to develop the technology. Ford invested $1 billion in Argo in Feb 2017. Volkswagen announced it closed on its $2.6 billion investment in Argo AI in June 2020.

The partnership allows Ford and Volkswagen to share development costs of self-driving technology as billions of dollars are being invested in the space by automakers racing to be the first to deploy autonomous vehicles at scale. 

Alphabet Inc's self-driving division Waymo is also working on the technology and in the process of launching a commercial robotaxi service in Arizona. Waymo is also working on self-driving trucks.

Aurora also entered into a strategic partnership with truckmaker Paccar Inc. last month to outfit trucks for autonomous long-haul freight delivery.

Uber abandoned autonomous driving development and sold its money-losing Uber ATG unit to Aurora for $4 billion in December. As part of the deal, Uber transferred its entire ATG unit to Aurora. Toyota is also an investor in Uber ATG.

In July 2020, Aurora announced the development of its own long-range lidar system for driverless vehicles. The lidar sensor is called "FirstLight" and it can see and track objects more quickly and from further away than other lidar sensors, according to the company.

Aurora is testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in California, Pennsylvania and Texas. 

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