While the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic and its entire, gigantic, enormous economic fallout, it’s perhaps surprising to find out that some companies (other than Amazon and Zoom) have been growing in that time. One of those firms is Aurora, a self-driving vehicle firm led by Chris Urmson, who was Waymo’s top dog for years.
Aurora got out of the box quite hot a couple of years ago, announcing partnerships with Volkswagen Group, Hyundai, Byton, and probably others. Though, we haven’t really heard or written about the company in the past year. I might have thought it died and turned into a butterfly if I didn’t run across a story this week in VentureBeat highlighting that the firm has been on a hiring spree despite the pandemic and has actually doubled its workforce in the past year, from 250 in May 2019 to 500 people today. I presume that’s a sign of progress. (Either that or Aurora is facing a big problem and keeps trying to solve it by adding to the workforce.)
Presumably, Aurora is a very attractive company to work for, particularly being led by Chris Urmson, and it is able to pull in a lot of top notch engineers. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the CEO flipping off the SEC and jetting off to Mars.
More seriously, though, VentureBeat‘s Kyle Wiggers explains how impressive of a feat it is that Aurora’s been having a good year: “Aurora’s hiring spree — which has a specific focus on mid- to senior-level engineers in software and infrastructure, robotics, hardware, cloud, and firmware — comes at a particularly fraught time for AV companies. The economic fallout from the pandemic has begun to take its toll, with even well-funded ventures like Cruise, Kodiak Robotics, and Ike shedding hundreds of employees collectively. (The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that another behemoth — Zoox, which also laid off employees — is in talks with Amazon about a potential buyout.)”
In fact, the challenges across most of the industry are like a 5 star breakfast buffet for Aurora. “We are actively hiring and with the industry shakeup right now, there’s a lot of new talent on the market, an opportunity we intend to take full advantage of. Our mission to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology has never been more crucial, and we’re hiring across the board, in software and hardware engineering, business, and operations,” an Aurora spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We continue to find many ways to make progress by staying nimble and adapting quickly. We’re getting our vehicles back on the road and leveraging our virtual testing suite, which allows us to conduct millions of valuable off-road tests per day.”
Urmson, like Musk, has long been expecting a lot of consolidation in this industry. There have just been far too many self-driving focused startups and corporate projects. Sooner or later, some have to fade away or get swallowed up while the most successful, promising, or just plain lucky collaborations move forward and launch the genuine commercialization of the industry.
“We’re positioned with enough runway to get through the other side of this and be a beacon for some of these great people whose companies didn’t happen to work out,” Urmson separately told Bloomberg. We’ll see if that’s truly the case or if it just holds on a bit longer before layoffs and collapse come Aurora’s way. If I had to bet, I’d bet on Aurora sticking around and getting early robotaxis to market before most others. Though, I wouldn’t pretend to have any inside knowledge on this or come up with a detailed engineering explanation of why Aurora seems better positioned than others.
However, I’m happy to close with what I’m sure is a totally unbiased quote I found on the Aurora website from LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, who also has a role at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners (which has invested in Aurora):
“The Aurora team is the most experienced, pioneering, and technically renowned in autonomous vehicles. This is the team that will bring autonomous vehicles to the mass market.”
We’ll see, young grasshopper. We’ll see.
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