Hindsight is 20/20: Aurora’s most impactful moments from a year we won’t forget
Recap | December 29, 2020 | 4 min. read
By Chris Urmson
I remember the last All Hands I hosted in person in early March. I told the company about a sobering discussion I had just participated in with one of the leading epidemiologists in the U.S. who worked on the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. I had realized the impact this virus could have on the world, and I knew this year would not just be about advancing our mission, but leading with empathy. Shortly after, we shut down our offices. Ten months have passed, and the damage from COVID19 is staggering: 1.6M deaths globally, millions out of work and families struggling to make ends meet. I can’t say this enough, but the fact we’re still able to pursue our mission, and that the Aurora Driver will help out in future situations like this, makes me grateful every day and confident we’re on the right path.
Although 2020 was challenging and tumultuous from a global perspective, I am proud of how our team pulled together to have our most impressive year yet. With that in mind, here are Aurora’s standout moments from the year, in no particular order, that show how we are building a company that will deliver on our mission.
#1: Growing and staying connected during the pandemic
It required a true cross-functional effort to stay focused and connected, but we welcomed 300+ new Aurorans virtually. This included numerous senior hires, who have been particularly impactful and instrumental as we continue to accelerate our growth:
Stathis Papaefstathiou, our SVP of Software Engineering, knows how to lead and scale software engineering teams
Richard Tame, our VP of Finance, sets up companies for long-term financial success
Tara Green, our VP of People, has experience in building and scaling people operations
David Maday, our VP of Business Development, has deep automotive industry expertise that is skyrocketing our BD efforts
We also developed new ways to stay connected, which included weekly pit stops and coffee chats, and our first Ask Me Anything where the kids of Aurora threw me some of the most challenging questions I’ve ever seen.
#2: Accelerating progress on the Aurora Driver remotely
At the beginning of the pandemic, our Vehicle Operations team helped with map creation, triage, and labeling, and our hardware engineers literally built and tested hardware in their garages to keep us moving forward. Moreover, our Virtual Testing Suite, which has grown to millions of offline tests a day, enabled us to continue to advance the Aurora Driver when our vehicles couldn’t be on the road. We continue to find ways to scale our offline capabilities and are now able to churn out an incredible number of unique, interesting scenarios—in fact, we just generated 100,000 simulations in 8 hours. We’ve also made impressive advancements in sensor simulation that allow us to create incredibly realistic virtual scenes to test our Perception system, accelerating how quickly we trained our next-generation trucks.
From the simulated camera image (above) you can see a close-up of the corresponding lidar points (below) that outline the other vehicles in front of our truck. This illustrates how our detailed and accurate virtual worlds create realistic outputs across all of the Aurora Driver’s sensor modalities.
#3. The power of early investments: Launching our next-generation trucks
We developed our Next-Generation self-driving trucks in 12 weeks flat, despite constraints from the pandemic, due to early investments we made in software, hardware, and development tools. Powered by the Aurora Driver, these trucks are designed to operate safely on highways and in industrial and urban spaces, and are now testing in autonomy in Texas. Though the Aurora Driver will move both people and goods, the demand for the delivery of goods has accelerated due to the pandemic, confirming that our first product will have the biggest and fastest impact.
#4. Unveiling FirstLight Lidar
Though we announced our first commercial product will be in trucking this year, we’ve been quietly working on trucks since our inception—we just needed a long-range sensing solution. We found that in 2019 when we discovered Blackmore and their game-changing FMCW Lidar technology. Within one year of joining forces, we deeply integrated our engineering teams and specified, designed, prototyped, and fabricated an industry-leading sensor suite that can detect objects 400 meters away. When paired with cameras and radar, FirstLight Lidar is unmatched in the self-driving world, and essential to the safe, rapid deployment of our next-generation trucks.
#5. Advancing our path to market with the Aurora ecosystem
Being a uniquely independent company in this space means we take advantage of working with a breadth of partners, ranging from manufacturers to networks that move people or goods, who are both critical as we move closer to deploying and commercializing this technology. FCA’s expertise has been instrumental as we transition our on-road passenger fleet to our current Pacifica fleet. As we think about the broad deployment of the Aurora Driver, we also launched the Aurora Test Site Network, which gives us the flexibility to safely test our technology on a multitude of geographies near our expanding areas of development.
#6. Howdy, Texas
To accommodate our trucking ambitions, we opened a new location in the Texas Triangle to develop and test our Pacificas and next-generation trucks on key logistic routes. In addition to eating a lot of Texas BBQ, we welcomed Texas Motor Speedway to our Test Site Network, trained our growing team of Trucks Operations Specialists (like Luis), started to test our trucks in autonomy on Texas roads and pull partner loads, all in a matter of months.
#7. Investing in our Safety team and approach
We significantly grew our Safety team, hired brilliant experts, like Sagar Behere, and focused on developing our Safety Case and a Safety Management System. As we expand our testing to other locations and operational domains, ensuring every part of our approach—from technical development to how empowered our employees are to raise safety issues—is paramount.
#8. Launching Aurora Academy
We envisioned Aurora Academy as a unique way to use our own experts to uplevel the skills of Aurorans to build an elite class of engineers and roboticists—and it’s been fun to watch it happen and grow. Based on the teaching concept “deliberate practice,” we’ve had eight different courses ranging from Lie Algebras, PyTorch to Public Speaking, with over 170 Aurorans participating. After one engineer said Aurora Academy is how she wished she learned in school, I knew we had landed on something special.
#9. We’re gonna need a bigger boat: Welcome ATG and Dara to our board
In what Techcrunch is calling the biggest AV story of the year, we are acquiring Uber Advanced Technologies Group. We did this for several reasons, but the one I keep coming back to is that it sets us up to win big. ATG’s impressive team and work, thanks to their resilience and grit, coupled with unlocking Uber’s massive ride-hailing network and having Dara’s expertise on our board of directors equates to having the technology, resources, and path to market to make 2021 even more productive. I am beyond excited about what we’ll be able to achieve as a powerhouse team.
It’s been an incredible year at Aurora. Here’s to making a lot more outrageous goals in our bright future.
If you felt inspired by what you just read, we’re hiring in all disciplines to help us solve one of the biggest challenges of our generation. Check out our careers page to see open positions and learn more about what it’s like to work at Aurora.
Aurora co-founder and CEO