For Aurora Innovation, independence is the name of the game.
The self-driving tech company has resisted efforts over the years to tie itself too closely to any one automaker partner. That's an unusual strategy in an industry where others are eager to establish partnerships and joint ventures to help defray the mammoth costs needed to make progress in autonomous driving.
But it is a strategy borrowed from another corner of the transportation industry: jet engine manufacturers, said Aurora CEO Chris Urmson.
"If you are a major airline, and you decide you want to buy or lease an aircraft, you have a conversation with Airbus or Boeing," Urmson said in a Zoom presentation Wednesday during the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars. "But you also say you want Pratt & Whitney or GE engines.
"So you have a 787 with Pratt & Whitney engines, and they work with Boeing to design and integrate them into the airframe."
Urmson's comments are some of the most revealing insight into Aurora's strategy the CEO has provided since Aurora and Volkswagen ended a self-driving vehicle development partnership last year. Since then, Aurora has deployed its self-driving system on eight vehicle platforms, from compact electric vehicles to minivans to Class 8 trucks.
Equipping one system onto such disparate vehicles isn't as difficult as it may seem, Urmson said. The hard part of the technology is to distill a picture of the world around a vehicle and detect obstacles. And that challenge is the same regardless of a vehicle's shape or size, he said. Roughly 95 percent of the engineering work remains the same across the applications, he said.
One of those applications has been getting more attention. Last month, Aurora revealed plans to expand its testing efforts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, where it will test big rigs and minivans on key delivery corridors.
The idea of using autonomous vehicles to haul goods has quickly risen to the forefront as COVID-19 ramps up desires for contactless delivery services.
Aurora has been working with Class 8 trucks for more than a year. That's because of the prospect for quicker financial gains and because there are no passengers to jostle.
"Trucking has the biggest economic opportunity, and it's a place where customers will be most patient," Urmson said. In a real-world cross-traffic setting, "a person in the back of a taxi might see a gap where they would have made a left turn, and they get a little anxious. A roll of toilet paper going from one warehouse to another doesn't know it's making a left turn."
But Urmson recoils at the idea that advanced tech companies like his are working in trucking because they perceive it as easier.
"One of the myths is that we're going into trucking because it's dramatically easier. Most of the time, it is easier." But he pointed out, "We don't care about 'most of the time.' "