Aurora, the startup that was founded by the former head of Google’s self-driving car project, has officially begun trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange under the ticker symbol “AUR.” It’s a significant milestone for the AV industry, which has struggled with overinflated expectations, missed deadlines, shuttered businesses, and a host of technological challenges.
Last summer, Aurora announced that it would go public through a reverse merger with a special acquisition company, or SPAC, called Reinvent Technology Partners Y. Upon closing this deal, Aurora said it has $1.8 billion in “gross proceeds and cash in hand,” which will help its quest to become a provider of self-driving hardware and software to companies in the trucking and ride-hailing industries.
“This is a thrilling moment”
“This is a thrilling moment,” said Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of Aurora, at an event celebrating the company’s public listing. “It’s such an exciting milestone for Aurora for our partners, our customers, our investors, and the entire industry. We’re working to launch an incredible product in trucking. We’re building an incredible following product for passenger vehicles. And we’ll continue to build a long line of products as a broad grows over the coming decades.”
Despite a rush of SPAC deals among companies that intersect transportation and technology in the past year, Aurora is the first autonomous vehicle to go public by merging with a so-called “blank check” company. But it probably won’t be the last, with fellow AV startup Argo AI reportedly in talks to go public in a SPAC merger.
Still, it’s a move that carries a lot of risk for Aurora and its founders. The company says it expects to lose money until 2027, with the next few years incurring the heaviest losses as it prepares to launch of its self-driving truck and ride-hailing businesses at scale. Aurora has said it wants to sell its hardware and software stack to other companies, rather than operate vehicle fleets itself.
Founded in 2017, Aurora’s executives have deep and diverse experience with autonomous vehicles. Urmson, who led Google’s self-driving car project before it was spun off as Waymo, started plotting Aurora in 2016.
The company says it expects to lose money until 2027
He eventually recruited Sterling Anderson, who was the head of Tesla’s Autopilot team until he reportedly resigned over disagreements about Elon Musk’s push to advertise that the company’s cars would be capable of “full self-driving.” Urmson also tapped Drew Bagnell, a self-driving engineer at Uber after the tech company poached him from Carnegie Mellon (as part of a much larger raiding of the university’s vaunted robotics division), as a third co-founder.
Since then, Aurora has been developing the hardware and software required to allow vehicles to drive themselves — a package of technologies that it calls the Aurora Driver. The startup already has deals in place with companies like Uber, Toyota, and Volvo to use the Aurora Driver. Aurora also bought Uber’s entire self-driving division at the end of last year.
Aurora expects its business to proceed on two tracks: self-driving trucks, available in 2023; and autonomous passenger vehicles in 2024. Both products will be available to customers via a subscription service.
Aurora lost $214 million across 2020 (with $179 million of that going to research and development), and that cash burn has only accelerated since, as the startup lost $189 million in the first quarter of 2021 alone (with $159 million spent on R&D in the quarter).
A number of electric vehicle startups, like Faraday Future and Lucid Motors, have also gone public via SPAC, as well as a handful of air taxi companies. (The founders of Reinvent, Aurora’s SPAC partner, also have a deal to merge with Joby Aviation, a California air taxi startup.)
Not all SPAC deals have gone well. Companies like Lordstown Motors, Canoo, Nikola, Velodyne, and others have faced federal investigations, company upheaval, and internecine battles after going public.
But Aurora seems well positioned to weather the storm, thanks to a deep bench of talent and experience. The company has pitched itself to investors that putting money into a technology this expensive is worth it, though, because the startup believes the autonomous vehicle industry will be dominated by very few players.
“We will lean into our experience, our mission, and our values to deliver a technology that will save lives that will make transportation more dependable,” Urmson said, “and we will put Aurora’s mark on the world’s roads.”