The driverless vehicle sector hit a setback in the autumn of 2022, with Ford- and Volkswagen-backed Argo AI announcing its closure. For Aurora Innovation, a self-driving truck company, this is less a sign of a bubble deflating than it is that long-haul trucking is the way forward.

Founded in 2016 and listed on the Nasdaq in 2021, Aurora Innovation has fallen on hard times — its stock price plummeted from a peak of $17.11 in November 2021 to $1.43 on November 24. It counts Uber as its largest minority shareholder and acquired Uber’s self-driving programme in 2021. Founded by Chris Urmson (the former chief technology officer of Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo), Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, Aurora represents a different ambition to its peers. It targets hardware and software for driverless trucking and hopes to enter the passenger vehicle market subsequently, but is not building a fleet of vehicles. 


Despite the headwinds the industry is facing, Richard Tame, the company’s chief financial officer, remains optimistic. “Aurora is the only public company that is targeting the trucking market first, then the passenger vehicle market,” he explains.

Trucking technology

“The reason [why we] can launch in the trucking market is driven by our proprietary technology,” he says. Aurora has its own frequency-modulated continuous wave technology, which is a special type of laser-focused system* that measures both the distance and velocity of moving objects, allowing driverless trucking to happen at high speeds.

“A lot of the self-driving work now is low-speed and is in urban environments, which is great, but with this technology, the trucking market is a much better market to launch in. The unit economics are better,” he says.

The company’s main focus is the US, where it expects to launch commercially in 2024. It has a partnership with Volvo where it has been developing the use of its technology on Class 8 trucks. Further down the line, it hopes to launch a ride-hailing application called Aurora Connect. 

Demographics and human computers


“We’re not interested in this being a science project,” he stresses. “We don’t want to just have a truck be able to drive itself. We really want this to have a big impact,” he says, citing the demographic problem bedevilling the trucking industry.

It is estimated that there is a truck driver shortage of up to 80,000 in the US, according to the trade association American Trucking Associations. This is a record high for the industry, which is only likely to grow with fewer young drivers coming forward to fill the gaps left by retirees.  

“We’re not going to replace human drivers, but we want to augment them,” Mr Tame says. “What we expect to happen is that autonomous vehicles can take away these long-haul routes, such as through the American Southwest, where it’s just desert, while human drivers can do more local routes.” 

Of course, this is still a long way off. When asked about the consumer wariness over technology of this kind, he says that safety is “the first part of our mission”. 

“It’s brand-new technology,” he says. “I think if you go back through history — when automobiles replaced horses, when the internet came along — there’s often wariness about brand new technology, but it soon disappears.”

But is a human driver being replaced by a computer really analogous to the internet replacing the book? Is the leap of faith not bigger? While this may seem to be the case, Mr Tame emphasises that with enough sense of safety, people are quick to adapt to technological drivers.

“What typically happens when people try out the technology for the first time is they’re excited about it being driven by a computer driver, checking to see if it is still working and then after 10 minutes, they are all on their phones,” he says.

This article first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.

*This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Aurora uses lidar technology.