Self-Driving Startup Aurora Bets On Lidar In First Acquisition

Aurora Innovation Inc., the self-driving technology startup known for its dream-team founders, has made its first major acquisition: a lidar company based in Bozeman, Montana. Aurora recently raised $530 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Inc. and T. Rowe Price Group Inc. It’s acquiring Blackmore Sensors & Analytics, a lidar startup that had raised funding from BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures, for undisclosed terms.

“The goal of our last fundraising round was to put us into this position,” Aurora Chief Executive Officer Chris Urmson said in a phone interview from Bozeman. “This team has been working on lidar for a long time, and they bring a depth of knowledge and understanding and have made tremendous progress.”

Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a critical technology as the world’s leading automakers, tech companies and startups race to make fully autonomous cars a reality. Companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are making their own lidar systems, while others like Velodyne are key players in the autonomous-vehicle supply chain.The system uses lasers instead of radio waves to build a three-dimensional image of the surrounding landscape, which is critical to the vehicle perceiving the environment, predicting the behavior of other vehicles or pedestrians and then planning how to safely navigate it. Blackmore uses what’s called frequency-modulated, continuous-wave — or FMCW — technology to support the simultaneous measurement of both range and velocity.

Autonomy Stars

Aurora’s co-founders are stars in the tight-knit community of roboticists and engineers developing self-driving cars. Urmson led the driverless-car project at Google that became Waymo, Chief Product Officer Sterling Anderson ran Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot team, and Chief Technology Officer Drew Bagnell helped form Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.

Aurora has offices in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and now Bozeman, which has one of the nation’s highest densities of optics and phototonics companies. Blackmore’s team, including CEO Randy Reibel and CTO Steven Crouch, will remain in Bozeman.It was the strength of Blackmore’s leaders and technology that led Toyota AI Ventures to invest back in 2018, Jim Adler, the fund’s founding managing director, said Thursday.

Aurora has announced partnerships with Hyundai Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and Byton Ltd. while designing a suite of software, hardware and data services to support a range of automakers and transportation networks. Instead of being captive to one customer, the company built an independent platform it calls the Aurora Driver.

Using a variety of systems increases reliability because each has its own strengths and weaknesses, Aurora said in a blog post Thursday.

“Based on our decades of industry experience, we’re clear that lidar, specifically with the advancements Blackmore has made, is part of the ultimate sensing system,” the company said.

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