Another day, another partnership

By Andrew J. Hawkins

Volvo is partnering with self-driving startup Aurora on a new lineup of fully autonomous semi trucks, the companies announced. The trucks will be deployed in North America on highly frequented hub-to-hub routes.

The deal between Volvo Autonomous Solutions and Aurora — which was founded by former executives from Google, Tesla, and Uber — is a “long-term partnership spanning several years,” the companies said. 

It’s also the latest partnership between a major OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and an autonomous technology startup, as the industry continues to slowly inch toward a future with more fully driverless passenger vehicles and trucks on the road. 

Aurora has been testing its “Aurora Driver” hardware and software stack in its test fleet of minivans and Class 8 trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since last year. Unlike its rivals, which are largely focused on robotaxi applications, the company has said that its first commercial service will be in trucking “where the market is largest today, the unit economics are best, and the level of service requirements is most accommodating.”

“Creating a viable autonomous on-highway offering requires close partnerships with both customers and tech partners to develop the needed capabilities,” says Nils Jaeger, president of Volvo Autonomous Solutions, in a statement. “This exciting partnership brings our goal of transport as a service an important step closer and will accelerate our commercial offer for hub-to-hub applications in North America.”

To date, Aurora has raised $690 million in funding, and co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson has been hailed as the “Henry Ford of autonomous vehicles,” thanks to his work helping to pioneer Google’s self-driving car initiative. His co-founders are Sterling Anderson, who helped lead Tesla’s Model X project, and Drew Bagnell, who ran a research lab at Carnegie Mellon then left to work on autonomous vehicles at Uber. Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai, and EV startup Byton are also Aurora customers.

The company raised half a billion dollars last year in a funding round led by Sequoia and including Amazon. It also acquired Uber’s autonomous division and teamed up with Toyota and Denso to develop a fleet of robotaxis, with the first hitting the road by the end of 2021.

Volvo, which is the second largest manufacturer of heavy duty semi trucks, has been gradually adding more partially autonomous features in its trucks but has yet to strike a deal to build fully driverless delivery vehicles. 

Long-haul trucking is likely to be one of the first broad applications of automated driving technologies. Indeed, there are widespread fears in the trucking industry that autonomous technology will lead to enormous displacement among truck drivers. 

A 2017 study found that automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by as much as 50 to 70 percent in the US and Europe by 2030, with 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents rendered obsolete. These fears are heightened as tech companies introduce eye-catching, cabin-less prototypes designed to cut the driver completely out of the equation.

There’s been a flurry of partnerships and other corporate deals in recent years in the nascent driverless trucking industry, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic casts doubt on the long-term viability of using autonomous vehicles for passenger transportation. Established players like Daimler said they would be joining forces with Waymo, while newcomers like TuSimple, Ike, Embark, and Plus are also working toward fully driverless trucks.