Aurora and Continental pass first major hurdle in commercial self-driving trucks deal

Aurora and automotive supplier Continental have wrapped up the first phase of a more than $300 million project to mass produce autonomous vehicle hardware for commercial self-driving trucks.

The two companies said Friday that the design and system architecture of an autonomous vehicle hardware kit is now complete. The blueprint for a secondary computer that can take over operation if a failure occurs — known as a fallback system — has also been finalized. The companies made the announcement ahead of a planned showcase at CES 2024, the annual tech trade show that kicks off next week in Las Vegas.

While a seemingly small milestone in a years-long and multimillion-dollar journey, it is a complicated and critical one. An array of hardware, including sensors such as radar, cameras and lidar, automated driving control units and high-performance computers, are used alongside software to allow a vehicle — in this case, driverless semi-trucks — to navigate roads without a human driver behind the wheel.

This means that Continental can now get to work on developing prototypes ahead of its plan to begin production in 2027. Continental will build initial versions of the hardware for testing at its new facility in New Braunfels, Texas over the next year. By 2026, the companies said that “validation” is expected to begin, a process that will include integrating the hardware and software systems onto a fleet of trucks for testing. Aurora is also partnered with truck makers Paccar and Volvo Group.

The end goal is to mass produce an automotive-grade hardware system that can hold up to the cold, heat and other environmental conditions that long-haul trucks encounter every day. Importantly, the hardware system has to be reliable, easy to maintain and produced cheaply.

The companies have previously said the intent is to produce thousands of these systems.

Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson said finalizing the design of its future hardware is a meaningful step toward making the unit economics of the Aurora Driver compelling and building a business for the long-term. In other words, Urmson believes it’s critical if the company hopes to become profitable.

Aurora isn’t waiting until 2027 or beyond to launch commercial operations, however. The company plans to launch 19 driverless Class 8 trucks — meaning no human behind the wheel — by the end of 2024. Initially, these driverless trucks will carry freight between Dallas and Houston, a route the company has been using for testing.

While these first 19 driverless trucks won’t be equipped with the Aurora-Continental hardware kit, they are designed to automotive standards and to operate safely without a driver, according to Aurora spokesperson Rachel Chibidakis. Aurora will continue to update the hardware on this fleet over the next several years before switching to the kit designed to be manufactured at scale.

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