Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa Bay news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Charlotte news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In Silicon Valley and Detroit, there seems to be a shared view that the first company to deploy self-driving vehicles at scale will have a huge competitive advantage. Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of start-up Aurora Innovation, tells Axios he is less worried about leading the self-driving car race than surviving to the end.

The big picture: Scores of auto and tech companies are sinking massive amounts of capital into autonomous vehicle technology, but only a handful of trusted players are likely to survive the inevitable shakeout.

"It's not about being first. It's about getting to the finish line. If we can get to the finish line, we'll be in really good shape."
— Chris Urmson, Aurora

The background: Urmson is a roboticist who led the Carnegie Mellon University team behind “Boss,” the self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe that won the Darpa Urban Challenge in November 2007.

  • He has 19 years of AV experience, including as head of Google's self-driving car project, now known as Waymo.
  • Urmson left Google in August 2016 and started Aurora in January 2017 with two partners, former Tesla AutoPilot engineer Sterling Anderson and former Uber self-driving car researcher Drew Bagnell.

What's happening now:

  • Aurora has grown to 180 people, half in Pittsburgh and half in Silicon Valley.
  • Its focus is developing an automated driver, not building cars.
  • The company has development deals with Hyundai, Volkswagen and Byton, the Chinese electric car startup.
  • Aurora's mission is to deliver self-driving technology "safely, quickly and broadly," which means scaling up around the world and across economic strata.
"This isn't a toy for rich people. It's a way to make getting around safer and easier."
— Chris Urmson, Aurora

Where it stands: Aurora still has several years of work ahead to achieve the desired system reliability and robustness, says Urmson. The hardest part: understanding humans and predicting their "weird" behavior.

What to watch: Some day people may have their own self-driving cars, but Urmson says first we'll see shared robo-taxi fleets in urban areas.

  • Long-haul autonomous trucks get a lot of attention, but Urmson doesn't believe that's a safe or smart way to start applying AV technology.
  • Level 3 autonomy, in which the car and driver pass control back and forth, is not realistic, Urmson says.
"If you're reading a book or watching a movie and suddenly (the car) says 'drive now', good luck. You don't really understand what's happening around you at that moment."
  • While other companies are pushing out self-driving features piece by piece, making cars gradually more capable, Urmson says Aurora is aiming for full Level 4 autonomy.

With so much hype around self-driving cars, it's easy to get distracted by the competition. But Urmson is intent on keeping his team focused on the finish line "so that as that reckoning comes, we'll be able to make it through and push this technology forward." 

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

Biden reviews U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official told Axios.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

Trump supporter found with pipe bombs accused of plot to attack Democrats

Five improvised explosive devices that the FBI says "were fully operational and could cause great bodily harm or injury if handled improperly." Photo: FBI/Justice Department

The FBI believes California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the Bay Area headquarters of Twitter and Facebook were targets of a man facing federal explosives charges, according to a criminal complaint.

Driving the news: Prosecutors charged Ian Benjamin Rogers after finding weapons including five pipe bombs, 49 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition following a Jan. 15 search of his Napa County home and auto repair business. His alleged goal was to ensure former President Trump remained in office.

6 hours ago - Health

Fauci: COVID vaccine rollout needs to prioritize people of color

Anthony Fauci. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci highlighted the need to address racial disparities in the COVID-19 vaccination process, per an interview with The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.

What he’s saying: "I think that's the one thing we really got to be careful of. We don't want in the beginning ... most of the people who are getting it are otherwise, well, middle-class white people."