Aurora, an autonomous tech company that’s preparing to list shares publicly, has begun receiving modified Toyota Sienna minivans for a pilot program that will lay the groundwork for a commercial robotaxi service it wants to launch in the U.S. with Toyota and Uber by 2024.
The Toyota S-AM vans—short for Sienna “Autono-MaaS”—will be used in a six-month pilot program Aurora will operate in cities including Pittsburgh and Dallas, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, to refine the software and sensors it’s developing. About a dozen of the hybrid-electric minivans will be part of the test phase and arrive seven months after Aurora announced plans to collaborate with investor Toyota and partsmaker Denso, a Toyota affiliate, on future robotaxis.
“We’re combining the deep experience of Toyota’s engineering and research teams with our expertise in safely developing a robust autonomous system to create a comfortable, convenient and safe ride experience,” Aurora said in a blog post. “Now we’re integrating our Driver with Toyota’s first S-AM vehicles, fresh off of their production line.”
Aurora is working to catch up to rivals including Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors-backed Cruise, Argo AI (which is supported by Ford and Volkswagen) and Amazon’s Zoox in turning on-demand robotaxis into a moneymaking service in the next few years. It’s also the latest autonomous tech developer to look to the unglamorous minivan as the potential workhorse of future on-demand ride fleets.
Waymo operates hundreds of Pacifica Hybrid minivans in suburban Phoenix; Cruise showed off a futuristic van in early 2020 that it’s readying for production and Argo is preparing to deploy electric Volkswagen ID.BUZZ vans for its German robotaxi pilot program. Zoox’s small, boxy robotaxi prototype, with inward-facing seats for four passengers and wide doors, is essentially a van variation.
The Sienna vans are built at Toyota’s Princeton, Indiana, plant; lidar, cameras and radar for the S-AMs are installed at the automaker’s North American engineering center near Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aurora is integrating its Driver computing and software system at its Pittsburgh facility.
As testing advances, Aurora intends to rely on partner Uber for data on the best cities in which to launch a robotaxi service, the most appropriate types of trips and optimal pickup and drop-off locations. Ahead of its robotaxi project, Aurora has said it will launch a revenue-generating robotic truck system by 2023.
Aurora was created by Chris Urmson, former head of Google’s self-driving car project, ex-Tesla Autopilot chief Sterling Anderson and computer scientist Drew Bagnell, a past member of Uber’s autonomous vehicle program. It’s merging with blank check company Reinvent Technology Partners Y, founded by Silicon Valley investors Reid Hoffman, Mark Pincus and Michael Thompson, a move the company estimates will raise about $2 billion to compete with Waymo, Cruise, Argo and Zoox. It will trade on Nasdaq later this year with the ticker “AUR.”