Aurora unveils test fleet of autonomous Toyota Sienna robotaxis

Autonomous vehicle technology company Aurora Innovation is launching a small test fleet of custom-designed self-driving Toyota Siennas for future ride-hail operations. The company will test its vehicles on highways and suburban streets in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area, with a focus on high-speed routes, according to an Aurora spokesperson.

The hybrid electric Toyotas will be equipped with the same software and hardware as Aurora’s Class 8 trucks that the company is testing for hauling goods. Similar to Waymo, Aurora wants to prove that it has a “key competitive advantage,” namely the “transferability” of its common core technology across two significant markets — trucking and passenger mobility. 

The unveiling of the test fleet comes six months after Aurora announced its initial development prototype of the same vehicle, which underwent testing in Pittsburgh, Dallas and the Bay Area, and a year after Aurora first announced its intention to partner with Toyota to integrate Aurora Driver with driverless vehicles designed for robotaxi operations. 

Aurora has previously stated a goal of launching its ride-hailing product, Aurora Connect, by late 2024, a driver-as-a-service product that will be available via existing ride-hail apps, in particular Uber’s. 

In 2020, Aurora bought Uber’s self-driving unit and has maintained a relationship with the company ever since. Aurora’s self-driving trucks, for example, are hauling goods for Uber Freight customers in Texas as part of a multiphase commercial pilot that will see the companies integrated more closely together. 

“We’re currently leveraging Uber’s detailed marketplace data to inform and accelerate our commercialization plan to broadly deploy Aurora Connect in partnership with Toyota and Uber,” an Aurora spokesperson told TechCrunch. “To enter the ride-hailing market, we’ve designed Aurora Connect to feather into existing ride-hailing networks, which will create a hybrid model of autonomous cars and human drivers that will help networks meet growing demand and give riders a seamless experience.”

Once Aurora Connect goes to market, when a rider requests a trip, they’ll either be picked up by an Aurora-driven vehicle or a human driver, depending on the route. 

While Aurora seems to have a clear path to commercialization, others in the robotaxi industry are already carving out road space. Motional, for example, recently launched a free robotaxi service in Las Vegas with on-demand and transit tech service Via, and it’s gearing up to launch a commercial service with Lyft in the same city next year. Argo AI and Ford have launched AVs on Lyft’s network in Miami, as well, with a planned Austin launch soon. And of course there’s Cruise and Waymo, both of which have launched robotaxi services in San Francisco and Phoenix, respectively, under their own brands. 

Recent months have seen Aurora testing its autonomous trucks on Texas’s highways with big name companies like FedEx. The startup recently turned SPAC says Texas will also be the first state in which Aurora intends to bring Aurora Connect to the streets. 

“Texas is home to a number of major U.S. interstates and routes that are critical for moving goods across the country and where many of our customers and future customers operate,” said the spokesperson. “Texas also gives us the ability to develop and test routes we’ll prioritize when we launch Aurora Connect, like rides to the airport.”

The self-driving Toyotas, which are built on the “Sienna Autono-MaaS” (S-AM) platform, can go up to 70 miles per hour and rely on the company’s proprietary FirstLight lidar for safe driving at highway speeds. 

Aurora’s test fleet will feature two vehicle operators — one behind the wheel to supervise Aurora Driver’s behavior and one in the passenger seat to monitor and take notes to be sent to the engineering team. The Siennas equipped with Aurora’s AV stack are already handling Texas U-turns, high-speed merges and lane changes, including when vehicles are stopped on the shoulder of the road and in order to get around slow-moving cars, according to Aurora. 

Driver is also reacting to various forms of construction, stop-and-go traffic and inclement weather. 

The fleet is small, likely less than 10 vehicles, at the moment, but Aurora says it will be adding additional vehicles to its fleet and expanding its testing to handle more scenarios and routes, moving into denser urban areas, in the coming months.