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Aurora: Leading the Future of Self-Driving Cars

Carl Eschenbach

After decades of relative stagnation, today’s automotive industry is poised for radical transformation on a massive scale. Three tectonic shifts are happening simultaneously: from personal vehicles to ride-sharing networks, from internal combustion engines to electric motors, and from human drivers to autonomous vehicles (AV). Of the three, the transition to AV may be the most disruptive, with the potential to profoundly impact everything from safety to productivity to access to transportation itself. But in this still-nascent field where the list of problems includes regulatory standards, manufacturing scale and cultural skepticism, AV is also likely the shift that’s farthest off—and its complex technology is perhaps the largest problem of all.

The question, however, is not whether this will be solved, but who will do so and when. Fully autonomous driving is inevitable; just as machines replaced manual labor during the industrial revolution, they will replace cognitive labor during the information revolution. For years Sequoia has explored the AV landscape, searching for that special team that would tackle the challenges of self-driving cars with ease. And then we met the founding team at Aurora.

We’d long known Chris Urmson, who built the code behind Waymo. After he left Google, we asked him to come to Sequoia to share an overview of the AV landscape. It was obvious Chris had the character we look for in founders. With high IQ and EQ alike, he is grounded, humble and authentic. A respected thought leader in the space—some have even called him the Henry Ford of AV—he is nonetheless quick to admit it when he doesn’t have an answer.

As Chris began building Aurora, Sequoia dove deep into the AV landscape. Armed with information from our research and that enlightening meeting with Chris, we met with nearly every AV company in the world from Detroit to Singapore. But each discussion brought us back to Chris and his team as the benchmark against which everyone else was measured. His two handpicked co-founders are industry leaders in their own right—Sterling Anderson led Tesla’s autopilot efforts, while Drew Bagnell launched self-driving at Uber. We believe the three of them compose the “dream team” of self-driving cars.

And it wasn’t just the founders who impressed us. Aurora’s executive team is extremely high-caliber—the level of technical and leadership talent was clear to us from the start. So was the strong culture; we saw the same authenticity and humility we respected so much in Chris reflected throughout the company. We also appreciated Aurora’s unique approach to the AV market. Fiercely independent, they’ve positioned themselves to work with a variety of partners, from ride-sharing companies to manufacturers to suppliers—which enables them to move more quickly than any one competitor can alone.

In the end, the choice was clear. Aurora was laser-focused on solving one of the hardest technical challenges of our generation, and they had the best team to do it. We leaned in heavily on the Series B, excited to partner with Aurora at a stage of development when the Sequoia team can help navigate everything from engineering challenges to recruiting and organizational design to operating at scale. At Sequoia, we see this partnership with Aurora as an opportunity to support an amazing team building innovative technology and leading the next radical transformation of transportation. Just as the first automobiles revolutionized human life more than century ago, we recognize that autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change the lives of people around the world—and we’re delighted to join Aurora on that mission.