VW, Hyundai partner with self-drive start-up

Nora Naughton, and Henry Payne

Aurora Innovation, the self-driving start-up owned by ex-Google chief engineer Chris Urmson, is partnering with Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co. to develop autonomous vehicles.

The German automaker and the self-driving startup based in Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh will work together to develop a driverless, ride-sharing vehicle fleet in cities, Volkswagen said in a statement Thursday.

Aurora will help Hyundai bring self-driving vehicles to the market by 2021, while VW and the tech company based in Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh will work together to develop a driverless ride-sharing vehicle fleet in cities.

Both automakers are working with Aurora to integrate the developer’s self-driving technology into their vehicle platforms.

The VW-Aurora partnership marks the comeback of two major players — Germany’s largest carmaker and ex-Google chief engineer Chris Urmson — in the auto sphere. VW has seen its reputation damaged by the Dieselgate cheating scandal. Its foray into the autonomous space is not only important as it competes against other global giants like General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Co. But it also is an opportunity for the company to re-assert its damaged engineering prowess and showcase its new direction away from diesel engines and toward battery-powered vehicles.

Other automakers looking to speed up the development of autonomous technology have been making similar partnerships and acquisitions in recent years. General Motors Co. acquired Cruise Automation in 2016 for $581 million and Ford Motor Co. forged a $1 billion partnership with Argo AI at the beginning of last year.

The acquisition of Cruise vaulted GM as one of the leaders of the self-driving car pack in 2017, with the Detroit automaker promising a self-driving fleet in a yet-to-be-named city by next year.

VW and Hyundai appear to be hoping for the same boost from Aurora. Over the past six months, the German automaker says it has been working with experts from Aurora to integrate the developer’s self-driving system — including sensors, hardware and software — into VW’s vehicle platforms.

Urmson said his company will help VW bring self-driving vehicles to the mass market. And while Hyundai is focusing on bringing self-driving cars to market in the next three years, it said Thursday it would work with Aurora to commercialize self-drivinge vehicles worldwide in the longterm.

Urmson was the team leader for Google’s ground-breaking egg-shaped autonomous car in 2014. But after Google restructured its self-driving program under CEO John Krafcik, the highly regarded Urmson left the tech giant and started his own Palo Alto-based company, Aurora. The latest deals mark Urmson’s re-emergence as a player in the autonomous race alongside other Silicon Valley notables like Google, Apple, Intel and Nvidia.