Aurora teams with PACCAR on self-driving truck development

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Aurora has made no secret its first foray into autonomous driving will come aboard big rigs.

The self-driving tech company underpinned that strategy in a big way Tuesday, unveiling a partnership with truck manufacturer PACCAR. The two companies plan to collaborate on integrating Aurora’s virtual driver onto Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks.

While there’s not yet a timetable, the effort is expected to yield a platform tailored for self-driving purposes which can be manufactured at scale.

“If one were to effectively go it alone and build something that was driverless-capable, that could be done and prototypes demonstrate this,” Aurora co-founder Sterling Anderson told Automotive News. “The real magic here is to leverage what’s already been built.”

The partnership includes collaborating not only on vehicle design and manufacturing, but on vehicle validation at the PACCAR Technical Center, support in factories and aftermarket parts distribution, finance and other transportation solutions.

Separately on Tuesday, Aurora closed on its previously announced acquisition of Uber Advanced Technology Group.

With a bolstered work force, the company will continue its blueprint of building a virtual driver versatile enough to handle driving vehicles as small as last-mile delivery bots and as large as Class 8 trucks.

Uber brings a ready-made ride-hailing network for deploying autonomous vehicles, but Anderson emphasized that Aurora still will prioritize self-driving trucks. It opened a satellite office and public-road testbed near Dallas last year to accelerate those efforts.

Maintaining that versatility has been a linchpin of Aurora’s strategy, even if it meant parting ways with high-profile automotive partners such as Volkswagen.

“We will continue on the arc we’ve been on over the last three years not allowing any single application of the driver to dictate its features in such a way it would preclude it from operating in other use cases or applications,” Anderson said.

For Aurora today, the acquisition that helps make autonomous trucking possible in the medium-term is not Uber ATG, but the 2019 purchase of Blackmore, a Montana lidar company that has pioneered what Aurora calls “FirstLight” lidar.

The frequency-modulated lidar sensors can detect obstacles at a range of about 437 yards, a distance necessary for carrying heavy payloads at highway speeds.

“You need to see quite a distance on more than just cameras,” Anderson said. “Until we had unlocked that technical challenge, we were not prepared to declare trucking as our first challenge. So the Blackmore acquisition got us that multi-modal sensing, and we were suddenly in a position to go after trucking with foundational technology in place, and maybe uniquely so.”

Competitors like Waymo, TuSimple, Plus.Ai and others would disagree with the latter part of that sentiment.

But on the trucking front, Aurora’s new partnership with PACCAR brings it up to speed with the others on a path toward global scale.

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