Geek of the Week: Chris Urmson, CEO and Co-Founder of Aurora

On the surface, Aurora looks like it could be any other tech startup. However, unlike other startups, it has quite a pedigree behind it. Chris Urmson, a co-founder of the company, was one of the innovators in the field of self-driving technology when it was in its infancy. As head of Google’s self-driving department for over seven years before deciding to co-found the startup, he’s well versed in understanding what makes these machines tick. Aurora itself intends to bring about a renaissance for self-driving technology, incorporating safety and security into their systems. According to Chris, “Our company’s mission is to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly.”

Aurora is a bright star on the startup horizon and has managed to secure partners with such noticeable names such as Fiat Chrysler, and Hyundai, making them more than just an upstart newcomer. Aurora isn’t just about putting together a sensor system for a vehicle, however. Their mission is to offer these partner companies a driver that can pilot their car efficiently and safely. It currently competes against a handful of other self-driving technology companies. Chris says that he sees these competitors as future partners.

Chris has seen a lot of upheaval in the tech scene since he graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2005 with his PhD. in Robotics. He first became a research assistant in robotics at SAIC. After a year at SAIC, Chris moved on to become the director of technology at Tartan Racing. This reassignment shifted his focus away from robotics and into general technology. He returned to academia, taking the post of an Assistant Research Professor at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. After five years in the post, Google hired him to head up its self-driving car unit in 2009. In 2017, Chris split from Google to found Aurora, mere months before the self-driving department became the company Waymo.

While Aurora is already a name of note in tech circles, there have been a handful of hiccups. In fact, when the company first formed, Elon Musk’s Tesla leveled a lawsuit against them for trying to poach their engineers and destroying evidence of wrongdoing. While the company eventually settled the suit out of court, it speaks volumes that Chris’ brainchild would spook such an established company as Tesla. Chris refers to the lawsuit as a “classy attempt” to discredit him and his company. Still, he remains committed to his mission, even though he might ruffle the feathers of the established godfathers of the industry.

Aurora’s technology is genuinely next-generation, incorporating sensors into the vehicle’s exterior to give the car a “feel” for its surroundings. Chris explained that the system utilizes both the internal sensor system alongside a sophisticated mapping system that helps with scalability and accuracy. Chris’s experience in the field is one of the most significant driving factors for Aurora’s success to date. As he recently said, “If you look at the self-driving community now, a significant fraction of the people who lead these companies used to work for me, so that’s kind of cool.”