Self-Driving Startup Aurora Buys Speed-Sensing Lidar Company – WIRED

Self-Driving Startup Aurora Buys Speed-Sensing Lidar Company - WIRED
Autonomous vehicle pioneer doubles down on technology Tesla CEO Elon Musk calls freaking stupid
A pioneer in autonomous driving is doubling down on a self-driving technology called lidar that uses sensors to help navigate through traffic — just a few weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk called the technology "freaking stupid."

Aurora CEO Chris Urmson said his company bought Blackmore, which develops and manufactures the sensors, for an undisclosed sum. Light detection and ranging technology uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure the distance of objects from cars, drones and other gadgets.

"Lidar is critical for developing the safest and most reliable self-driving system, one that can navigate our roads more safely than a human driver," Urmson said in a statement announcing the acquisition of Blackmore.

Urmson's belief in lidar is important given his track record and reputation developing autonomous vehicles. For years, Urmson ran the Google self-driving car project that was later named Waymo, the autonomous-vehicle company which is widely regarded as the leader in driverless cars. Urmson left Google in 2016 shortly before the tech giant rebranded its self-driving car program.

Urmson's endorsement of lidar technology stands in stark contrast to the opinion of the Tesla CEO. In April, Musk was outlining his company's plan to have up to a 1 million robotaxi Teslas that will be completely autonomous.

The key to that plan is Tesla's autopilot technology. Tesla's Navigate on Autopilot system relies primarily on cameras that see the road and feed data to the car's computers, which in turn help navigate the car through traffic. Tesla's autopilot does not use lidar, which is a suite of sensors capable of seeing around cars and trucks to help autonomous vehicles steer through traffic.

"In cars it is freaking stupid. It is expensive and unnecessary," Musk said of the lidar technology. "Once you solve vision, it is worthless."

Aurora, Waymo, General Motor's Cruise and other automakers and tech firms find Musk's vision of lidar to be short-sighted and wrong. They've invested heavily in using lidar in the autonomous vehicles and technology they are developing and testing.

In the case of Aurora, Urmson says Blackmore's lidar "can see further with less power, measure velocity instantaneously, and are less susceptible to the challenges associated with heavy weather.

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Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, is in an acquiring mood. The company, founded in early 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, announced Thursday that it acquired lidar company Blackmore.

The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. 7D, founded by former software engineer from Pixar animation Magnus Wrenninge, is a simulation startup that makes photorealistic synthetic dataset for street scenes. Aurora confirmed the acquisition.

Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition come on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and significant investment from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. Its considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry — with the exception of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a handful of others — as a critical and necessary sensor for self-driving vehicles.

Blackmore, which has 70 employees, might not be a household name. And its base of operations in Bozeman, Montana makes it a seeming oddball amongst the Silicon Valley scene.

But in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention.

Blackmore CEO Randy Reibel, noted in a recent interview, a highlight was getting a chance to see the look on Urmson’s face when he first saw the lidar in action.

Not all lidar is the same, both Urmson and Reibel noted. The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell AM lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then track how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.

Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low power and continuous wave, a bit like keeping a flashlight on, the company’s CTO and co-founder Stephen Crouch explained. The upshot is FMCW lidar can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It’s also “immune” to interference from sun or other other sensors, Crouch added.

The big win, Urmson and Reibel echoed, is that it is optimized with the perception stack. In other words, this lidar is technically compatible in a way that will improve perception of Aurora’s “driver.”

The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two months of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. In 2017, Cruise acquired Strobe and Argo AI bought Princeton Lightwave.

That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” AV companies are particularly protective of their tech and opening the door to an outside lidar company takes convincing.

Despite the acquisition, Urmson reiterated, as he has in the past, that Aurora is not interested in manufacturing hardware whether it’s cars or lidars. The company will work with automotive Tier 1 suppliers and other partners as it scales.

For now, Aurora is focused on integrating Blackmore’s lidar into its self-driving stack and isn’t necessarily planning to sell lidar sensors as a standalone product. But, Urmson added, “We’re open minded about the future.”


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