It’s 2021 and we’re still finding unique ways to pair up to develop self-driving cars. The latest is between Toyota, AV startup Aurora, and auto part supplier Denso. The three companies will join forces to develop a fleet of robotaxis, with the first hitting the road by the end of this year.
It’s a big get for Aurora, the scrappy AV startup founded by Chris Urmson, the former head engineer of Google’s self-driving car project, among others. Toyota, which outsold Volkswagen in 2020 to reclaim its status as the biggest automaker in the world, is one of the few car companies that has yet to pair up with an autonomous vehicle startup. Denso, which spun out of Toyota in the mid-20th century, is one of the largest auto suppliers on the planet. So Aurora is now officially rolling with the big dogs.
The companies plan to develop and test driverless vehicles equipped with Aurora’s self-driving hardware and software stack, starting with the Toyota Sienna minivan. “By the end of 2021, we expect to have designed, built, and begun testing an initial fleet of these Siennas near our areas of development,” the companies said.
Once they finish testing, the companies will begin mass producing autonomous vehicles for a full-scale ride-hailing operation. According to Aurora:
It brings our companies together to lay the groundwork for the mass-production, launch, and support of these vehicles with Toyota on ride-hailing networks, including Uber’s, over the next few years. As part of this long-term effort, we’ll be exploring mass production of key autonomous driving components with Denso and a comprehensive services solution with Toyota for when these vehicles are deployed at scale, including financing, insurance, maintenance, and more.
Aurora recently grew its ranks of engineers after acquiring Uber’s self-driving car division late last year. The startup sent offer letters to about three-fourths of the ride-hailing company’s Advanced Technologies Group, which is based in Pittsburgh and Toronto, according to TechCrunch.
Toyota has largely kept its self-driving car tinkering quiet. The Japanese company has released some information about its test vehicles and the types of sensors it’s using, but we’ve seen very little of the cars in operation. Toyota was planning to offer a limited ride-hailing pilot in downtown Tokyo during the 2020 Summer Olympics, but that was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The automaker also recently invested $400 million in Pony.ai, a self-driving startup based in the US and China.
Toyota has developed a self-driving software called “Chauffeur,” which ironically was also the codename for Google’s self-driving project under Urmson. Toyota’s software is “focused on full autonomy, where the human is essentially removed from the driving equation, either completely in all environments, or within a restricted driving domain.” Toyota has a second product called “Guardian,” which is essentially an advanced driver-assist system akin to Tesla’s Autopilot. Neither is being offered in any production car today.
Toyota Research Institute, the automaker’s Silicon Valley-based division, has been conducting tests at its Ottawa Lake, Michigan, closed-course facility for a number of years. In 2018, Toyota agreed to invest $500 million in a joint self-driving project with Uber, but that investment is now moot as Aurora owns what’s left of Uber’s AV division.