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Self-Driving Technology Developer Aurora to Partner with Volvo on Autonomous Long-Haul Trucks

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【Summary】Volvo Group is partnering with Silicon Valley autonomous driving developer Aurora to accelerate the commercialization of autonomous Class 8 trucks for highway long-haul freight delivery in North America. As part of the partnership, Aurora will supply its “Aurora Driver” autonomous driving software stack that will be added to the trucks from Volvo.

Eric Walz    Mar 30, 2021 2:30 PM PT
Self-Driving Technology Developer Aurora to Partner with Volvo on Autonomous Long-Haul Trucks

Volvo Group is partnering with Silicon Valley autonomous driving developer Aurora to accelerate the commercialization of autonomous Class 8 trucks for highway long-haul freight delivery in North America. As part of the partnership, Aurora will supply its "Aurora Driver" autonomous driving software stack that will be added to the trucks from Volvo.

The two companies first got together to discuss a potential partnership in 2018, says Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson. By the end of 2018, the two partners built the first Aurora-powered autonomous truck. 

However the task of outfitting a Class 8 truck for autonomous highway driving was not easy, according to Anderson. Initially, Aurora's sensor suite of cameras, radar and lidar could not see far enough ahead to safely drive (or stop) a Class 8 truck at highway speeds. 

So the two companies needed a solution for a long-range perceptions system that would give a heavy truck traveling at highway speeds ample time to stop for any road hazards, such as a broken down car ahead. 

In May 2019, Aurora announced it acquired Montana lidar startup Blackmore, a company working on a long range lidar perception system.

Aurora said that it chose Blackmore because of its pioneering work in Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, a next-generation lidar technology that can improve the perception capabilities of self-driving vehicles. Blackmore was the first company to deliver commercial FMCW lidar sensors for automotive fleets.

Aurora even opened an office in Montana so the two companies can work more closely on integrating Blackmore's 300+ meter range FMCW lidar technology into Aurora's autonomous driving hardware and software stack which its calls the "Aurora Driver."

FMCW lidar is a promising technology for autonomous vehicles. It offers a higher dynamic range, all-weather performance and interference immunity, which makes it safer and more scalable, according to Aurora. One of the biggest advantages of FMCW lidar is that it can measure the velocity of moving objects.

 By 2020, Aurora announced a new FMCW lidar sensor called "FirstLight" and began to deploy Class 8 trucks integrated with the next-generation of its Aurora Driver in Texas.

Also during this time, Volvo was actively pursuing the commercial deployment of Level-4 autonomous trucks, creating a new subsidiary called Volvo Autonomous Solutions, which launched on Jan 1, 2020. The Volvo subsidiary is developing autonomous transport solutions for the trucking industry. 

Now Aurora has been selected by Volvo Autonomous Solutions to be its technology provider to develop and commercialize L4 Class 8 trucks for North America.

"Our partnership with Volvo has been a long time coming and hits the ground running. We've built the right technology and Volvo's built the right framework. Together, we're excited to create and commercialize a powerful set of autonomous solutions for the massive and important trucking market," wote Anerderson in a blog post.

The first autonomous commercial truck built by Volvo and Aurora will be adapted to the requirements of the Aurora Driver, and tailored for the daily demands of an autonomous hub-to-hub freight network. The trucks will operate autonomously on highways between hubs for Volvo customers. 

The logistics services will range from transport, operational support, servicing and maintenance, cloud support (for dispatching and routing), and more, Anderson said.

These trucks will combine the best of Volvo's own technology with the Aurora Driver, which has the ability to detect and track objects well beyond 300 meters, into a scalable logistics platform. 

Although Aurora is a relatively new Silicon Valley startup founded in 2017, the company has made great progress on the development of autonomous driving technology in just a few short years. The rapid development pace can be attributed to the extensive experience of the company's founders, all of which are industry veterans who set out to develop the world's safest autonomous driving technology.

Aurora was founded by CEO Chris Urmson, who launched Google's self-driving project over a decade ago. Urmson is joined by co-founder Sterling Anderson, who led the team that developed Tesla's Autopilot autonomous driving feature. Aurora's Chief Technology Officer Drew Bagnell is a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who helped found Uber Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG) in Pittsburgh.

In Dec 2020, Uber sold its ATG unit to Aurora for $4 billion. As part of the deal, Uber transferred its entire 1,200-employee ATG unit to Aurora, which at the time had around 600 employees. Also as part of the part of the deal, Uber agreed to invest $400 million in Aurora.

Uber retains a 26% stake in Aurora and its Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi holds a seat on Aurora's board. 

Autonomous trucks can contribute to making the roads safer by always obeying the speed limit and are programmed to strictly adhere to all traffic laws. Since they can operate autonomously on the highway, they will not be limited to operating a fixed number of hours per day like human operated trucks, so the trucks can be utilized up to 24 hours a day. 

Aurora is not alone in the development of self-driving trucks, which are poised to transform the aging trucking industry with modern technology, making the delivery of goods much more efficient and less expensive.

Also working on self-driving trucks are California startup TuSimple, as well Waymo the company that spun out of Google's self-driving car project that Aurora CEO Chris Urmson once led.

In addition to Aurora's partnership with Volvo, in February, Aurora announced a strategic partnership with Japan's Toyota to add autonomous driving capabilities to its future models, beginning with the popular Toyota Sienna minivan.

Aurora will be exploring mass production of key autonomous driving components with Toyota supplier Denso and provide support for the automaker when its first self-driving vehicles are deployed at scale.

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