Aurora Innovation Unveils its Self-Driving Toyota Sienna Robotaxi in Texas

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【Summary】Autonomous technology developer Aurora Innovation has revealed its new robotaxi developed in partnership with automaker Toyota. The custom-built Toyota Sienna minivan is outfitted with Toyota's Vehicle Control Interface (VCI) and the automaker’s “Sienna Autono-MaaS” (S-AM) platform. It will be used in Aurora's commercial autonomous ride-hailing service called “Aurora Connect”.

Eric Walz    Apr 29, 2022 4:30 PM PT
Aurora Innovation Unveils its Self-Driving Toyota Sienna Robotaxi in Texas
The custom-built Toyota Sienna minivan is outfitted with Toyota's Vehicle Control Interface (VCI) and the automaker’s “Sienna Autono-MaaS” (S-AM) platform.

Autonomous technology developer Aurora Innovation has revealed its new robotaxi vehicle developed in partnership with automaker Toyota. 

The partnership with Toyota was first announced in Feb 2021, in which Aurora is developing autonomous driving technology for future Toyota models, starting with the popular Toyota Sienna minivan. 

The custom-built Toyota Sienna minivan is outfitted with Toyota's Vehicle Control Interface (VCI) and the automaker's "Sienna Autono-MaaS" (S-AM) platform. Autono-MaaS is an abbreviation for "autonomous mobility-as-a-service", which is what Aurora's commercial autonomous ride-hailing service called "Aurora Connect" will be.

Toyota's S-AM platform will serve as the foundation for the Toyota Sienna minivans that will be part of Aurora's fleet. 

Aurora has worked closely with Toyota North America's engineering team over the last year to establish and refine requirements to prepare this vehicle model platform to integrate with the "Aurora Driver", which is the name of the hardware and software stack developed by Aurora that supports autonomous driving.

Aurora has further refined its Aurora Driver hardware while Toyota was simultaneously building a larger fleet of platform vehicles at its facilities, which will also be offered to other companies. Each vehicle will be customized for the requirements of its customers, including for Aurora Connect.

"Toyota's engineering team is truly world-class. Experiencing the result together this week was special and is a testament to our progress and respect for one other," said Sterling Anderson, Chief Product Officer & Co-Founder at Aurora. "We've designed and delivered a purpose-built test fleet specifically for a ride-hailing experience that's comfortable, convenient, and safe, and we look forward to sharing more on our progress soon."

Aurora is currently testing the self-driving Sienna vans on highways and suburban streets in Texas. The full-stack Aurora Driver can navigate unique U-turns in Texas, perform high-speed merges and automatic lane changes, including those in response to vehicles on the shoulder of the road, Aurora says. 

The Aurora Driver is also able to react to various forms of construction, stop-and-go traffic, inclement weather, and can detect pedestrians, motorcyclists, traffic lights and other traffic scenarios.

To honor the unveiling of the "Sienna Autono-MaaS", Toyota executives were invited to be the first to experience the Aurora Driver that controls the vehicle. The riders were picked up at Toyota's Headquarters in Plano, TX and then driven autonomously on a section of the route that drivers would normally take on their way to the busy Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. 

The route is designed to show the robust capabilities of the Aurora Driver, as well as the vehicle's ability to safely operate at highway speeds. Highway runs like this will allow Aurora to offer frequent and lucrative rides to the airport when the Aurora Connect service officially launches.

"We congratulate Aurora on reaching their milestone of integrating its Aurora Driver technology onto our Toyota Autono-MaaS platform vehicle," said Ted Ogawa, President and CEO of Toyota Motor North America. "The route represented what we would expect going to the airport in the future, and we look forward to seeing Aurora's future deployment plans."

Aurora is emerging as a leader in the development of self-driving technology. The company was co-founded in 2017 by Anderson, along with Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell. All three are respected industry veterans in the field of autonomous driving. 

Urmson once 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.

Bagnell spent two decades in the field as an associate professor in the renowned robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University. He was first 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).

While working for Uber, Bagnell was instrumental in developing the perception systems for the ride-hailing company's self-driving test vehicles. 

Uber sold its Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and assets to Aurora for $4 billion in Dec 2020. As part of the deal, Uber transferred the entire ATG unit along with its employees to Aurora. Uber also made a $400 million investment in Aurora and still aims to add self-driving vehicles to its ride-hailing fleet in the future.

As part of the acquisition, Uber retains a 26% stake in Aurora and Uber's Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi was awarded a seat on Aurora's board. 

Aurora set out to build a full-stack self-driving system,which resulted in the development of the Aurora Driver. It's an entire software stack that combines AI, data visualization, cloud infrastructure, lidar, radar and deep learning inference. It's designed to be added to existing vehicles like the Toyota Siennas, but it can also be installed in autonomous delivery vehicles, or Class-8 long-haul self-driving trucks

Aurora is also considering licensing the technology to other automakers or autonomous driving developers.

The common core of the Aurora Driver platform means that the fleet of Toyota Siennas "inherited" all of the learnings and capabilities of Aurora's next-generation Class-8 trucks, which are also in development. 

Aurora said the modified Toyota Sienna vehicles achieved "parity" with Aurora's Class-8 autonomous trucks within just six weeks of commencing on-road testing. 

Aurora plans to continue adding vehicles to the fleet and testing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in preparation for commercial launch of Aurora Connect.

Aurora joins Waymo, Cruise and dozens of other companies racing to be the first to commercial autonomous mobility and last-mile delivery services in cities in the U.S. The company remains a valuable partner for Toyota as its plans to offer Level-2 and higher autonomous driving capabilities in future models.

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