NEW YORK – Amazon has invested in high-profile autonomous-vehicle startup Aurora, giving the online retailer insight into the fast-developing world of driverless cars as it navigates its growing logistics operation.
Aurora raised more than $530 million in the latest funding round, which was led by venture firm Sequoia Capital and included capital from Amazon and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Group, the startup said Thursday. The investors valued the company at more than $2 billion.
“This is a great amount of capital for us to build from for a while,” said Chief Executive Chris Urmson, who helped start Google’s self-driving program, now called Waymo, in 2009.
Aurora, founded in 2017 by veterans of autonomous-vehicle development, says it is developing a mixture of software and hardware that help vehicles see and navigate the world. The company early on signed deals with auto makers Volkswagen and Hyundai to eventually install its technology in their vehicles.
The technology is a natural fit for Amazon, which could use autonomous forklifts, trucks and drones to shuttle packages quickly and lower its logistical costs. Amazon’s delivery expenses rose 27 percent to $27.7 billion last year, and the company has sought to carry more packages itself and rely less on shippers like FedEx.
Amazon has placed several bets on driverless-vehicle technology. It formed a team a few years ago to help it figure out how to leverage autonomous vehicles. It has also experimented with creating drones, and last month it announced it was testing a fully electric delivery system called Amazon Scout that looks like a small cooler and rolls down the sidewalk.
An investment in Aurora could lead to partnerships with Amazon down the road, though neither company was specific about future plans.
“Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.
Many autonomous-vehicle companies are realizing that deploying such technology will take longer than previously thought, because of both technical challenges and the high cost of sensors. The initial pursuits are focused on robot taxis, in-town delivery shuttles and long-haul trucking. Aurora is developing the computer brains that could make such vehicles work.
The sheer cost of developing autonomous vehicles is becoming clearer as companies test fleets around the US General Motors has raised billions of dollars from SoftBank and Honda to develop autonomous vehicles through its GM Cruise unit. Aptiv PLC, which is among the more aggressive developers of autonomous vehicles, opened a large command center with more than 300 employees in Las Vegas, monitoring 30 test vehicles deployed through Lyft’s app for users to hail along the Strip.
The death of a pedestrian involving an Uber Technologies test vehicle last year has raised questions about the safety of the technology and whether cities are ready. Alphabet’s Waymo has launched a commercial service in suburban Phoenix but still has human safety operators behind the wheels.
Aurora raised $90 million about a year ago, shortly after it announced the deals with Volkswagen and Hyundai. Executives at both auto makers said then they aimed to put Aurora’s self-driving software into production vehicles by 2021.
Aurora attracted attention from the beginning because of its founders’ pedigree. Urmson was the face of Alphabet’s effort before he left in 2016.
The other founders are Sterling Anderson, who helped put Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system on the road, and Drew Bagnell, who headed Uber’s autonomy architect and perception team.
Aurora has more than 200 employees, and the company has 10 test vehicles on the road in California and Pittsburgh.
Lightspeed Venture Partners, Geodesic Capital, Shell Ventures and Reinvent Capital are all part of the latest round, along with existing investors Greylock and Index Ventures. Carl Eschenbach, a partner at Sequoia, is joining the Aurora board.