Meet the 9 execs leading Amazon-backed Aurora on its quest to swipe Waymo’s self-driving-car dominance

Aurora Innovation execs

Summary List Placement

Aurora Innovation has established itself as one of the top contenders in the autonomous-vehicle industry as it develops self-driving systems for semi trucks and ride-hailing vehicles.

Since its 2017 founding, the company has raised $1.2 billion and formed partnerships with Toyota and Paccar. And in an industry where most major players are owned by a tech company or an automaker, Aurora stands out for its independence. Though it has big-name investors like Amazon and Uber, none has a controlling stake.

Aurora’s cofounders — CEO Chris Urmson, CTO Drew Bagnell, and chief product officer Sterling Anderson — have received praise from industry observers, but it takes more than three people to deliver on this tech. Behind these big names are a number of executives who playing critical roles in helping the company bring its computer-operated “driver” to the road.

These are nine of Aurora’s key executives.

SEE ALSO: Apple reportedly wants to build a car the same way it manufactures the iPhone. Experts explain why the upside outweighs the risk as long as it finds the right partner.

Chris Urmson, cofounder and chief executive officer

Chris Urmson is one of the autonomous-vehicle industry’s pioneers. During the 2000s, he participated in the DARPA-sponsored self-driving-car races that helped launch the industry. After that, he became a founding member of Google’s autonomous-vehicle program (now called Waymo). He led the program until he left in 2016.

At Aurora, Urmson has bet big on computer simulations as a key tool for testing automated-driving technology, arguing that simulations are safer and faster than on-road tests (though Aurora does the latter as well). He has also pursued a diversified business model that has led Aurora to develop technology for self-driving semi trucks and robotaxis. 

Urmson’s vision and reputation have helped Aurora raise $1.2 billion while landing partnerships with Paccar, Toyota, and Denso.

Drew Bagnell, cofounder and chief technology officer

Drew Bagnell was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University for 11 years (he still serves as a “consulting” professor, according to his LinkedIn profile and Carnegie Mellon’s website) before becoming one of the founding members of Uber’s autonomous-vehicle program, Uber ATG, in 2015. Bagnell left ATG to cofound Aurora in 2017.

“Drew Bagnell is probably one of the top five guys in the world in machine-learning for perception,” former Volkswagen executive Johann Jungwirth told Forbes in 2018.

In his profile on Carnegie Mellon’s website, Bagnell wrote that he’s “interested in designing algorithms that allow systems to observe their own operation and improve performance,” a key skill self-driving vehicles will need.

Sterling Anderson, co-founder and chief product officer

Sterling Anderson’s autonomous-vehicle career began at MIT, where, according to his LinkedIn profile, he developed a framework to help self-driving cars evaluate their surroundings and make decisions. Anderson joined Tesla in 2014, where he led the development of its Model X SUV and Autopilot driver-assistance feature.

Aurora plans to introduce its automated-driving technology in semi trucks. In 2020, Anderson oversaw the development of a self-driving platform for semis in a 12-week period, which he characterized in a 2020 blog post as “industry-leading speed.”

“If you want to get to market with a safe system quickly, you can do no better than to start in trucking,” Anderson said in 2020 at an event hosted by The Information.

Dave Maday, vice president of global business development

Before joining Aurora in 2020, Maday spent more than 20 years at General Motors, where he rose through the ranks to become the automaker’s vice president of corporate development and global mergers and acquisitions. In an interview with Insider, Maday said he was drawn to Aurora by its high-quality team and “clear, succinct path to market.”

Maday helps Aurora move along that path by leading the company’s efforts to form partnerships with other firms. During his six months at Aurora, the company has announced partnerships with Paccar, Toyota, and Denso. Maday told Insider he’s continuing to look for new collaborators.

“We want to deliver this technology and the benefits of the technology broadly,” Maday said. “To do that, you have to work with multiple partners.”

Tara Green, vice president of people operations

Tara Green was the chief people officer for Originate before she became Aurora’s vice president of people operations in 2020.

When Green joined Aurora, the company said in a blog post that her priorities included building Aurora’s workforce and employee-development infrastructure. When Aurora acquired Uber ATG in late 2020, Green was charged with integrating ATG’s workforce into Aurora’s. Though Aurora did not disclose the percentage of ATG employees who made the move, TechCrunch reported in December that ATG was about twice the size of Aurora, with 1,200 employees.

Sandor Barna, vice president of hardware engineering

Sandor Barna was GoPro’s CTO before becoming Aurora’s vice president of hardware engineering in 2019.

Barna “knows how to build innovative, high-performance products and bring them to market at scale,” Urmson wrote in a 2019 blog post announcing Barna’s hiring. Urmson said bringing Aurora’s self-driving technology to the road will require a careful blend of sensors, computers, and other hardware. Barna’s deep understanding of electrical architecture, silicon, and vision systems are an asset to Aurora, Urmson wrote.

In the same post, Barna said his managerial approach is oriented around guiding his team toward the same goal, rather than micro-managing each assignment.

“I am not going to tell an engineer how to build a circuit board, but I will make sure we’re all rowing in the right direction,” he said.

Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, head of partnerships, product, and programs

As Aurora’s head of partnerships, product, and programs, Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli told Insider her job is to coordinate the efforts of teams across Aurora, including engineering and operations. Before joining Aurora in 2019, she was Lyft’s director of business development and strategy, where she focused on automated-driving technology.

Theodosiou-Pisanelli said she’s now focused on integrating the Uber ATG team into Aurora’s and making sure the company is using the best processes and technologies from each.

“The work we’ve done just in the few weeks leading up to the acquisition and post-acquisition has been really rewarding and energizing,” she said.

 

Randy Reibel, vice president of lidar

Randy Reibel joined Aurora in 2019, when the company acquired his lidar startup, Blackmore. Sterling Anderson has characterized Aurora’s lidar technology (lidar sensors bounce beams of light off nearby objects to measure how far away they are) as one of the company’s major advantages.

In a 2020 blog post, Reibel said the lidar technology he developed at Blackmore has a longer range and can absorb more information that traditional units. The next step, Reibel said, is modifying Aurora’s lidar units so they can be built on a large scale.

“Our team has already made significant advancements in producing the world’s first mass-manufacturable FMCW lidars,” Reibel said.

Nat Beuse, head of safety

Though Nat Beuse is new to Aurora, he has a long history in automotive safety. Beginning in 2007, he worked at the US Department of Transportation, where he helped develop guidelines for autonomous-vehicle testing. He joined Uber ATG’s safety team in 2018, months after a fatal crash involving an ATG test vehicle exposed concerns from employees that ATG was being reckless.

The Uber accident illustrated the risks of failing to make safety a priority and how a high-profile crash can derail an autonomous-vehicle company’s progress: Uber ATG took its test vehicles off the road for months in the wake of the incident. Beuse told Insider that Aurora had strong safety policies when he arrived. He’s now focused on bringing ATG’s and Aurora’s safety teams together and “making sure we have the best thinking of both companies in those policies.”

Are you a current or former Aurora employee? Do you have a news tip or opinion you’d like to share? Contact this reporter at mmatousek@insider.com, on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address mmatousek@protonmail.com.

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