Aurora strikes deal with Toyota, Denso to develop, test self-driving Sienna minivans

Aurora has reached a deal with Toyota and auto-parts supplier Denso to develop and test vehicles equipped with the self-driving startup’s technology, beginning with a fleet of Toyota Sienna minivans.

Engineering teams from Aurora and Toyota will work together to design and build the self-driving Sienna minivans with an aim to start testing a fleet by the end of 2021, the companies said Tuesday.

The announcement follows Aurora’s acquisition of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, which spun out from Uber in 2019 after the unit raised $1 billion in funding from Toyota, Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The acquisition, which closed January 20, was a complex deal in which Uber handed over its equity in ATG and invested $400 million into Aurora. Uber now holds a 26% stake in the combined company. Toyota also has a minority stake in Aurora as a result of the acquisition.

The partnership announced Tuesday is similar — at least in part — to an agreement reached in 2018 between Toyota and Uber to bring an on-demand autonomous ride-hailing service to market. Under that deal, which included a $500 million investment by Toyota, the companies agreed to integrate Uber ATG’s self-driving technology into the Sienna minivans for use in Uber’s ride-hailing network. The vehicles later could be owned and operated by third-party fleet managers, Toyota and Uber ATG said at the time.

Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson emphasized that this is a new partnership and not just an extension of Toyota’s agreement with Uber ATG.

Toyota and Aurora declined to disclose details such as the size of the team or whether there were financial incentives tied to the deal, making it difficult to determine the scope of the collaboration.

However, Aurora describes this as a long-term strategic deal and laid out an ambitious vision for a partnership that extends far beyond testing. Aurora said that the joint development work in 2021 will lay the groundwork for the mass production and launch of these vehicles with Toyota on ride-hailing networks, including Uber’s. Aurora said it will also explore mass production of autonomous driving components with Denso and the creation of a services platform with Toyota that could manage financing, insurance and maintenance of the self-driving vehicles.

Anderson noted that the development of these commercial downstream services such as fleet management has become increasingly important for the company following its agreement with trucking firm PACCAR and now Toyota.

“We need a vehicle, we need a driver and we need support services,” Anderson said in a recent interview. “One of the areas that we’re exploring with Toyota as part of this, is the scaled deployment of Toyota-built vehicles, powered by the Aurora driver, supported by a combination of Aurora’s support services as well as Toyota’s network. This is one of the areas where Toyota’s scale becomes so significant to us.”

The path from testing to commercialization is a long one, riddled with potential speed bumps, including technical and regulatory challenges, competing with rivals over skilled workers and raising enough capital. Achieving these doesn’t always equate to success as operating an autonomous ride-hailing network has its own set of hurdles. The upshot: Aurora’s partnership with Toyota is no guarantee.

Still, locking in a partnership with a large automaker is still important for Aurora.

“Toyota has an unparalleled legacy, engineering expertise, leadership, and ability to deliver high-quality, affordable, and reliable vehicles,” Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “They’re also the preferred vehicle brand for transporting riders on ride-hailing networks, so we’re excited and honored to work with them to unlock driverless mobility services with the Aurora Driver.”

Urmson added that Aurora’s development work on highway driving to support its first commercial product, a driverless truck, “will also be critical for safely moving people, as a significant fraction of ride-share bookings today require the ability to drive over 50 mph.”

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