VW, Hyundai Turn to Driverless-Car Startup in Silicon Valley

In the race to develop driverless cars, Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co. are placing bets on a Silicon Valley startup founded a year ago by the former leaders of autonomous vehicles at Google and Tesla.

Aurora Innovation Inc. on Thursday announced separate partnerships with the two auto makers, signaling the emergence of a potential rival to Waymo, the Google self-driving experiment that has morphed into a business unit of corporate parent Alphabet Inc.

The young Palo Alto, Calif., startup has a pedigree of driverless-car experts but is no surefire bet, with only about a year under its belt. The support of two of the largest car companies could help propel Aurora in a nascent industry that is working to upend the future of personal transportation.

Executives from both VW and Hyundai said in interviews that they aim to put Aurora's self-driving software in production vehicles by 2021.

Aurora is using a mixture of robotics and machine learning to create vision systems and driving policy programs that allow computers to pilot a car without people behind the wheel, as well as developing how those systems would work with lasers, radar and cameras to see and navigate the world.

The company is run by Chief Executive Chris Urmson, a roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University, who helped found Google's self-driving car program in 2009 and led it after Sebastian Thrun left in 2014.

Mr. Urmson was among a wave of self-driving car engineers who left following the arrival of former Hyundai executive John Krafcik, who was hired by Alphabet in 2015 to run the project and turn it into a business. About a year ago, Mr. Urmson teamed up with Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell to found Aurora, which also has offices in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Anderson, a roboticist from MIT, had helped put Tesla Inc.'s semiautonomous driving system, called Autopilot, on the road while Mr. Bagnell, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, helped found Uber's autonomous car group in Pittsburgh.

Many analysts expect the first deployment of self-driving technology to be through mobility services, such as robot taxis. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, predicts one-quarter of miles driven in the U.S. by 2030 may be through shared, self-driving vehicles.

Waymo's autonomous vehicles appear to be in the lead after having driven more than four million miles on public roads. The company announced in November that it had begun operating in suburban Phoenix without people behind the wheels of its Chrysler minivans.

Waymo secured a deal for 600 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and has been in talks with Honda Motor Co. for a little more than a year. Efforts to cut deals with other auto makers have struggled.

For Johann Jungwirth, Volkswagen Group's chief digital officer, part of Aurora's appeal was the startup team's experience and its position in the market as a company wanting to work with auto makers. "There is no overlap in competition with Aurora," he said. "You can imagine working with others in this field and immediately you have competition."

Volkswagen, which began working with Aurora about six months ago, plans to begin rolling out several test vehicles this year followed by hundreds of vehicles next year and more than a thousand in 2020. It then wants to deploy a fleet of new autonomous vehicles in 2021 in up to five cities where customers can hail and ride in the robot cars, Mr. Jungwirth said.

"We can be faster to market, and we can actually have a safer road to market by partnering," he said.

Hyundai aims to deploy self-driving vehicles on a commercial scale by 2021 with Aurora through the deployment robot taxis, said Woongjun Jang, Hyundai's director of advanced driver assistance systems.

The companies wouldn't disclose the financial details of the partnerships. Neither deals are exclusive.

The Volkswagen and Hyundai executives say that their companies are talking with Waymo about working together.

Hyundai's Mr. Jang demurred on what those talks might entail, citing confidentially agreements.

Volkwagen's Mr. Jungwirth suggested a relationship with Waymo would be different than its relationship with Aurora: The company could be, for example, selling cars to the tech giant. "Basically, for us, it would be additional business."

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 04, 2018 06:14 ET (11:14 GMT)