Ex-Google, Tesla Driverless Czars Partner With VW and Hyundai

Three self-driving vehicle pioneers are taking their former big-name employers head on with a pair of alliances that could shake up the car industry.

Aurora — a startup formed by one-time executives from autonomous car projects at Google, Tesla and Uber — will develop self-driving electric vehicles with Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co., the two automakers said in separate statements. The car companies, latecomers to the technology upending the sector, are exploring using the self-driving systems for taxi services, robotic deliveries and even in-car advertising.

“This is a partnership of the century,” Johann Jungwirth, Volkswagen’s chief digital officer, said in a phone interview. “I have full trust in the Aurora team.”

The initiatives pit Hyundai and Volkswagen against other major automakers, Tesla Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and ride-hailing firms, adding to a complex web of deals as manufacturers, suppliers and tech giants scramble to develop and take driverless vehicles to market. The partnerships also vault Aurora to the upper echelons of a slew of self-driving startups that have appeared in recent years.

Aurora has stood out to engineering specialists, investors and potential partners largely because of the cachet of its three founders: Chris Urmson, the longtime director of Google’s car project, now called Waymo; Sterling Anderson, the former head of Tesla’s Autopilot program; and Drew Bagnell, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and a founding member of Uber Technologies Inc.’s Advanced Technologies Center.

Tesla sued Anderson, now Aurora’s chief product officer, in January 2017 for breach of contract by joining Aurora, and subsequently dropped the lawsuit in April.

Pittsburgh, home to Carnegie Mellon University, has long been the epicenter of robotics research and Aurora has a sizeable office there. Bagnell is Aurora’s chief technical officer.

Aurora now employs well over 70 people across two offices and Urmson said the company is hiring aggressively. One of the company’s stated values is “No jerks.” “We debate and solve hard technical problems. We don’t waste time battling over personalities and egos and we have no tolerance for time-wasters and nonsense,” says the Aurora website.

For the partnerships with Hyundai and Volkswagen, Aurora will work with them to outfit traditional vehicles with self-driving software and systems.