With hundreds of millions of dollars being funneled into startups in the autonomous vehicle sector, investors, engineers, and enthusiastic tech journalists are both skeptical and excited for our potential self-driving futures. How close we are is not clear, but both big tech and rising startups are racing to that Level 5 finish line, and some engineers are leaving the cash-laden arms of Big Tech to do so.
In fact, six of the most well-funded startups in the AV sector were founded by former Googlers and employees of Baidu, Tesla, or Uber.
So what happened?
Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better
According to a 2017 report by Bloomberg, Google promised its self-driving employees a large payout after four years of service. And it’s a retention plan that may have backfired on the search giant. Soon after the four-year period was up, it was reported that many left Google with substantial amounts of cash in hand.
And those Xooglers have gone on to make names for themselves in the industry, attracting huge investments from VCs and automakers alike. Some stuck together after leaving Google, while others teamed up with engineers from Google’s competitors.
One of the most high-profile Google departures was Chris Urmson, the former CTO of Google X and one of the project’s main pioneers. When Urmson left Google in 2016, he wrote, “If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky.” And it turns out he did.
Urmson founded Palo Alto-based Aurora shortly after leaving Google. His co-founders, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, are also big-tech veterans, the former coming from Tesla and the latter from Uber. Aurora has attracted $90 million in funding from Greylock Partners and Index Ventures. Urmson told Crunchbase News in an email that the decision to found Aurora was informed by his decade of experience working on self-driving.
“I already understood the immense impact that this technology can have on society and saw the opportunity to start a company with a team of experts […] that could take a fresh and modern approach to building this very challenging, and incredibly important technology,” he said.
Further, Urmson wrote that that “fresh and modern approach” is bolstered by the collective experiences and expertise of his cofounders.
“We have a great advantage at Aurora of being able to bring together the experiences that all of us have, and apply this knowledge to the technology that is available today, particularly with machine learning and cloud computing, and the current state of the automotive industry in terms of connectivity and electrification.”
Speaking to his current position as a CEO, Urmson said that he is also focused on building a healthy culture and attracting a diverse team “that represents the society we’re building this technology for.”
“We have the opportunity to deliver great benefits to society in terms of safety on the road, quality of life and access,” he expressed in writing. “The challenge is how do we do it quickly and how do we deliver it broadly in a way that is safe and acceptable for the public.”
And as far as when we’ll see that fully autonomous future, Urmson said that it’s going to be a “handful of years.”
While we wait, let’s take a look at other notable companies in the autonomous vehicle space that were founded by those who left Google.
Nuro was founded by Jiajun Zhu, one of the former leaders on Google’s self-driving project, and Dave Ferguson, who was a principal engineer on the team. The two worked together before leaving in 2016 to start their own company.
The Mountain View-based startup is a bit different than your average AV company. The company, which made our Top AV list back in August, has developed an autonomous vehicle that is meant to deliver goods rather than people.
This niche is notable in that the two didn’t leave the company to compete directly with their former employer, but rather are focusing on combining the excitement over autonomous robotics with investor interest in delivery. This strategy allowed the company to attract a $92 million Series A investment from Greylock Partners and Gaorong Capital in January 2018.
Bryan Salesky, who served as the Director of Hardware Development on Google’s self-driving cars project for three years, also left Google in 2016.
In 2017, he founded Argo AI and just months later scored a $1 billion investment from Ford. That massive investment also came with an ambitious timeline. The company, which was co-founded by Peter Rander, a former lead engineer for Uber’s self-driving project, pledged to deploy fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. Volkswagen is reportedly in talks about a collaboration with Ford and a $1 billion investment in the Pittsburgh-based Argo AI.
This Beijing, Guangzhou, and San Francisco-based company was founded by Tiancheng Lou and James Peng in 2016. Interestingly, both founders came from Baidu’s self-driving division. However, before moving to Baidu, Lou worked on personalization and autonomous vehicle technology at Google, according to his company bio.
Pony.ai has attracted $214 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. As mentioned on our list of top AV startups, the company has tested its vehicles in Beijing, and it is ha formed strategic partnerships with China-based automotive companies.
Deepmap is a Palo Alto-based HD mapping and data management startup that focuses on autonomous vehicles. The company has raised a known total of $92 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase. Most recently, the company raised a $60 million Series B in early November. The company’s investors include Rober Bosch Venture Capital, Accel, and Andreessen Horowitz among others.
Deepmap, which is still in stealth mode, was co-founded by James Wu and Mark Wheeler. Per their Linkedin profiles, Wheeler and James both formerly worked as software engineers on Google Maps and Google Earth. James became a lead software Engineer for Google Earth in 2010. After leaving Google in 2012, he ended up working at Apple as a tech lead for Apple Maps. In 2014, Wu began his year-long tenure at Baidu’s self-driving initiative before founding Deepmap. Beyond the founders, Deepmap’s COO Wei Luo also worked as a product manager at Google, spending a significant amount of time on Google Maps and Google Earth.
However, Xoogler-founded autonomous startups have faced bumps in the road. Tesla filed a lawsuit against Aurora in 2017. It was settled later that year. Otto, founded by former Google X employee Anthony Levandowski, was sold to Uber in August 2016 for $680 million, a substantial exit that lead to a trades secrets lawsuit between Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving business, and Uber. Levandowski was accused of stealing information accumulated from his tenure at Google. Uber ended up firing Levandowski in May 2017, and the company announced in July that it was ending the development of autonomous trucks under Otto.
This bump in the road for Levandowski speaks to the riskiness of leaving a top secret project to start your own. Tech companies like Google and Apple have the will and the means to oppose new projects with litigation. On the IP front, Xoogler founders walk a fine line.
Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias