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Aurora Buys Chip Startup To Cut Laser Lidar Costs For Robot Cars And Trucks

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Aurora Innovation, the self-driving tech developer that recently bought Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, is acquiring OURS Technology, a Silicon Valley startup specializing in integrating multiple sensors into a single chip to help cut the cost and size of the laser lidar system it developed for autonomous trucks. 

OURS, which specializes in sensor fusion applications, will integrate Aurora’s FirstLight lidar technology, created after it previously bought FMCW lidar maker Blackmore in 2019, into a solid-state chip. Aurora declined to say how much it’s paying for Santa Clara, California-based OURS, which has raised about $5.8 million since its founding, according to PitchBook. About a dozen OURS engineers are joining Aurora and will work at its Bay Area offices. 

“You can’t bring high-speed autonomous vehicles to market safely without lidar,” Aurora CEO Chris Urmson said. “You can try, but you won’t succeed.”

Founded by former Google
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self-driving tech chief Urmson, Sterling Anderson, who led the development of Tesla’s
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Autopilot feature and Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Drew Bagnell, closely-held Aurora has intensified its focus on developing automated driving technology for heavy-duty trucks. Eighty-thousand-pound big rigs operating on highways at relatively high speed need the long-range vision and 3D mapping ability lidar offers–working in combination with cameras and radar–but it has to be affordable. Costs have come down from tens of thousands of dollars per unit to a few thousand dollars or less, but it’s still too costly for large-scale commercial use.  

Along with Aurora, leading autonomous tech developers including Waymo, Cruise, Ford- and Volkswagen-back Argo AI, Hyundai-backed Motional and Amazon’s
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Zoox robotaxi unit prioritize lidar to help maximize safety owing to its ability to detect depth and other features cameras aren’t as good at. Notably, one major holdout against the technology is Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has  called it a “crutch” and a useless organ, like an “appendix.” Musk has touted and charged Tesla customers for “Full Self Driving” capability for years–but hasn’t quite delivered it–favors lower-cost cameras and radar.

Blackmore’s lidar tech provided the long-range sensing Aurora wanted; OURS can make it cheaper and more compact, the company said. OURS’s proprietary design and development process–that Aurora is gaining–helped it create four generations of lidar in just three years, with the fourth-generation being just a tenth the size of earlier iterations, according to Aurora.

“FMCW technology could be key to bringing affordable self-driving to the masses,” said Asad Hussain, mobility analyst for PitchBook Mobility. “With its significantly reduced cost structure, improved performance through instant velocity readings, and small form-factor allowing for easier integration within bodywork and behind windshields, FMCW lidar could significantly disrupt lidar incumbents such as Velodyne, which utilize large, bulky, spinning applications with significant cost and maintenance disadvantages.”

The company this month announced plans to partner with Toyota and Denso on a robotaxi project and is also developing autonomous semis with truckmaker Paccar
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.



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