Aurora Innovation is the youngest of the three companies and came out of "stealth mode" only this year. Its freshly redesigned offices are decorated in a restrained navy blue, giving it a modern, high-tech feel that's free from the quirky indulgences of so many high-tech startups. A monastic calm hangs over the mostly empty office and its adjoining garage workshop, as engineers work silently on electronic components and screens filled with code.
Aurora's famous founders, former head of the Google self-driving car program Chris Urmson and former head of Tesla's Autopilot program Sterling Anderson, are at the firm's Bay Area offices, and Chief Technical Officer Drew Bagnell, who heads up work at the Pittsburgh office, is lurking somewhere in the background. But four engineers are on hand to give an inside look at the day-to-day development of Aurora's self-driving software stack: technical program manager Dima Kislovskiy, robotics engineer Clint Liddick, perception engineer Davis King and software engineer Ethan Eade.
All four explain that the hushed office reflects the way work gets done at Aurora.
"At a high level, our days are periods of intense individual concentration and work interspersed with frenzied communication," Eade said.
Aurora manages this balance by designating the time before lunch as Maker Mornings, Liddick explains.
"You are free to not respond to email or Slack. If you want to take all of the morning and just concentrate on the hard problem and work by yourself with headphones, that's respected," Liddick said.
For many of Aurora's engineers, this work time is spent "turning ideas about how to solve some subpart of this big problem space into a working software machine," Eade said.
After lunch, the office livens up as a more collaborative phase of work begins. "The communication is broad," Eade said. "When we do it best, it involves a surprisingly large fraction of the company at one time."
Because each part of the self-driving stack is such a thorny problem, and yet each part needs to be tightly integrated, Aurora puts a strong emphasis on cross-team collaboration to prevent the formation of fiefdoms, round out individual skill sets and keep everyone pulling together.
A company software review infrastructure forces engineers to check one another's code every time they submit a new piece of the software. Comparing the system to open-source projects, King says the cross-company review policy "keeps everyone in the loop, keeps everyone engaged. Everybody knows what's going on because you're constantly pulled into reviewing people's code. It seems like a trivial thing, but big things are built out of tons of trivial things."
That collaboration ensures a shared sense of purpose as employees develop technology with real-world, potentially life-or-death consequences.
"Safety is a process, and it's an attitude, and it's a willingness to hear reservations, objections, thoughts from anywhere at any time and to treat them with all the attention they deserve," King said.
One of the company's maxims is that building a self-driving system is about turning science problems into engineering problems, and as Kislovskiy puts it, "Engineering is fundamentally a human problem." The belief that a combination of brilliant talent and collaborative culture is the only way forward not only creates what Eade calls an "unironic Aurora spirit," but also a sense that the company can more or less ignore the ups and downs of its competitors and even perceptions of self-driving technology more broadly.
"We're sort of on Aurora Island," Kislovskiy said. "There's too much noise; there's too much commotion; there's too much distraction; and we think we know what we're doing. ... One of the things we try to do is not only not say anything externally, but try to keep to our own game, play it the way we want to and really stay super focused."