Aurora, a self-driving technology startup created by three marquee researchers in that field, raised more than $530 million in a funding push that brought in retail giant Amazon as an investor.
Led by former Google Self-Driving Car Project chief Chris Urmson, Aurora said Silicon Valley-based venture firm Sequoia Capital led the Series B round that included Amazon and T. Rowe Price. Carl Eschenbach, a Sequoia partner, is also joining Aurora’s board, which includes fellow tech investors Mike Volpi, Ian Smith and Reid Hoffman.
Aurora is now among the best-funded players working to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology, raising a total of $620 million including a $90 million round a year ago. And while it’s engineering all the necessary AI, software and computing power, Aurora has no plans to operate or build fleets of self-driving vehicles like Alphabet’s Waymo, successor to the Google program, General Motors and its Cruise unit, Tesla and robo-taxi startup Zoox. Instead, it’s forming partnerships with the likes of Volkswagen, Hyundai Motor and Chinese-backed electric vehicle startup Byton to help develop those companies’ autonomous vehicles.
So if it’s not going to have its own vehicles, why the need for so much money? Autonomy is “a fundamentally hard problem,” Urmson told Forbes. “We know it’s capital intensive, and we’ve been up-front with our partners and investors that this is not a short play.”
Happy that “a great technology company like Amazon, who thinks hard about the implications of logistics and movement of goods” is investing, Urmson declined to discuss whether that investment might result in a tech partnership.
Publicly, Amazon has been quieter about its plans for autonomous vehicles than even famously reticent Apple, which at least acknowledges having engineers working on the technology. Perhaps that’s because no U.S. retailer has more to gain from the commercialization of robotic trucks and automated delivery vehicles.
“We are always looking to invest in innovative, customer-obsessed companies, and Aurora is just that,” Amazon told Forbes in an emailed statement. “Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”
An Amazon spokesperson declined to confirm whether Aurora was its first investment in self-driving tech. Lightspeed Venture Partners, Geodesic, Shell Ventures and Reinvent Capital also participated in the latest funding round, as did previous backers Greylock and Index Ventures.
(For more on the the arrival of commercial self-driving tech, see At Waymo, It’s Launch Time For Google’s Biggest Moonshot)
Urmson was an original member of Google’s team and his Aurora cofounders include ex-Tesla Autopilot chief Sterling Anderson, an MIT-trained roboticist, and Drew Bagnell, a former lead engineer for Uber’s Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh and an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.
Urmson has advocated the potential benefits self-driving vehicles hold for society since his Google days, including reducing traffic deaths and making transportation more convenient and enjoyable. That enthusiasm is undeterred by the sluggish start of commercial operations for Waymo and other self-driving programs.
“This is about building something that will make the roads dramatically safer, make transportation more accessible and make it better,” he said. “We’re going to build an incredible business and build something meaningful.”
“The investors we’re bringing on board, we’re being transparent about the challenges.”