It was a matter of time.
Self-driving startup Aurora unveiled a partnership Tuesday with Toyota Motor Corp. and affiliated supplier Denso Corp. that will bring the three companies' engineering teams together in an effort to develop autonomous minivans.
The agreement comes two months after Aurora acquired Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, which had counted Toyota and Denso as prominent investors.
Together, Toyota, Denso and Aurora will develop a self-driving Toyota Sienna minivan that can be mass-produced and deployed on ride-hailing networks, with Uber's being a prime destination.
Their work could become a powerful confluence of a major global automaker and its key supplier, a ride-hailing service and a self-driving system provider.
While Aurora characterized the burgeoning partnership as a "long-term agreement," there's no specific time frame as to when the companies plan commercial deployments. But they do intend to have prototypes testing on the road by the end of this year.
The companies did not disclose whether Toyota and Denso brought fresh funding into Aurora or the partnership. An Aurora spokesperson said: "We are not sharing the financials of this deal."
In April 2019, Toyota and Denso combined to invest $667 million in Uber ATG. Uber actually kicked $400 million into its deal to sell ATG to Aurora in exchange for a 26 percent stake in the company, which was co-founded by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell.
Beyond the financials, the vehicle platform marks a milepost in self-driving developments. For years, the Chrysler Pacifica has been the minivan of choice for many companies, from AutoX to Voyage. The Sienna joins the ranks of minivans with workhorse potential in a robotaxi fleet.
"We're excited and honored to work with them to unlock driverless mobility services with the Aurora Driver," Urmson said in a written statement. "Our development work on highway driving to support our first commercial product, a driverless truck, will also be critical for safely moving people, as a significant fraction of ride-share bookings today require the ability to drive over 50 mph."
That's notable. While most companies concentrate their robotaxi development efforts on urban settings, Aurora is placing more emphasis on ensuring it can get riders to and from cities on highways that would require those faster speeds. And it isn't alone.
Last week, Argo AI said it had begun testing on highways in Pittsburgh and will do so in Miami in a matter of weeks. In both cases, the companies want to ensure their systems are versatile enough to handle trips such as airports pickups and drop-offs, for example.
Another aspect of Tuesday's tie-up that signals the commercial possibilities: Toyota, Denso and Aurora will explore aspects of the ride-hailing business that stretch beyond autonomous-driving technology itself. They'll examine what they call a "comprehensive services solution" that involves how the fleet is financed, insured, maintained and more.
The agreement does not alter Aurora's intention to first deploy an autonomous vehicle not in robotaxis, but in the trucking realm, where Aurora had devoted much of its efforts prior to the Uber ATG acquisition. At first glance, it would be easy to think Aurora's original team would stay focused on trucking while the new employees who had been part of ATG would assume robotaxi responsibilities. But a company spokeswoman says the teams are more blended, a move that Aurora believes will accelerate development on both fronts.
"By launching first in trucking as one team, we will enter a massive market [nearly $700 billion] most quickly with a revenue-generating product," she said. "We also expect developmental overlap to significantly improve the efficiency of our development in both trucks and ride-sharing vehicles, with each application piggybacking on the advances of the other."
Aurora says the Siennas will be developed and tested at facilities in Pittsburgh, the Bay Area, Michigan, and Texas.