A top autonomous vehicle company is officially making Pittsburgh its long-term home.
Though Aurora previously operated a dual headquarters here and in Mountain View, California, this new announcement makes Pittsburgh the sole corporate center for the self-driving tech company. The news comes after announcements of a new office opening in the Strip District last year (which added to Aurora’s presence in Lawrenceville and Hazelwood), and of plans to go public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Reinvent Technology Partners Y, later this year. Supplementing these business moves is Aurora’s acquisition of Uber Advanced Technologies Group — the ride-hailing company’s former self-driving unit — in December 2020.
“With its incredible universities and focus on innovation, Pittsburgh has been home to Aurora since we were founded and we’re committed to continued growth right here in this community,” said Aurora VP of Government Relations Gerardo Interiano in a press release. “With a firm belief in the future of this city and its workforce, we’re excited to have our corporate headquarters here and be making a donation that will help fund the city’s next generation of technologists and roboticists.”
Despite its already established presence, Aurora’s fuller dedication to Pittsburgh with this announcement will strengthen efforts made earlier this summer by groups like the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, which hosted a summit in June to declare Pittsburgh the “robotics capital of the world.” Aurora, which had representatives at that event, took that mission seriously, as have other autonomous vehicle companies this summer.
“I feel like we’re reaching that tipping point within the community. It’s kind of central to what our message was in June,” Pittsburgh Robotics Network Executive Director Joel Reed told Technical.ly, adding that while people outside of Pittsburgh often have an awareness of Carnegie Mellon University and its prowess in artificial intelligence and autonomy, there isn’t that same recognition of expertise across different sectors of the local tech industry.
But this news and other successes in the last decade should change that perception. Dedications to Pittsburgh like this, Reed argued, will make other companies realize the importance of being a part of the local tech hub and doing business here. This month, the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce published a report in conjunction with research firm TEConomy Partners that analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh’s autonomous vehicle sector. Though the report identified Pittsburgh as a global hub for autonomous transportation, there remains a threat of competition from other regions, underscoring the need for the city to “establish its own programs to reinforce its current innovation ecosystem as well as root emerging companies and talent in the region.”
Of Aurora’s particular role in doing that, Reed added that “they’ve been not only a recognized leader in our robotics community, but they’ve really been working behind the scenes to strengthen Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania’s leadership in autonomous systems.” Given that the company is a leading sponsor of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network and has demonstrated a commitment to local economic development, Reed said, “we’re very pleased to hear that they’re renewing their commitment as being a company headquartered in Pittsburgh, which further cements our leadership in autonomous mobile systems.”
Already, the majority of Aurora’s 1,600 employees are located in Pittsburgh, the press release noted, and the company plans to expand its team even further here, creating new jobs as the pandemic continues to cause economic damage. Those jobs will include more than just new positions for software engineers, but address needs for the growing company’s hardware, vehicle operations and general business requirements in areas like marketing, human resources, management and logistics.
With this renewed commitment to Pittsburgh will also come a $65,000 donation from Aurora to help fund requests related to STEM programming and development from teachers in Allegheny County. Some of that funding will go toward resources like a digital microscope, science experiment books and class project materials like an incubator for hatching chickens.
Of helping to build local resources in tandem with establishing this new full headquarters, Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman said “that is a pattern that was established many, many years ago” in the Pittsburgh community.
“That we not only thrive in the region as a business, but we also come together to invest in the region and invest in each other and work collaboratively to make the region stronger,” Pashman added. “To me, that’s only emblematic that Aurora is really living the Pittsburgh way.”
The impending IPO from Aurora and its SPAC — which a recent filing targeted for Q4 this year at $21 per share at an $11 billion company valuation — will also help continue the trend of local wealth generation that will come out of Duolingo’s IPO and a planned one from fellow autonomous vehicle company Argo AI.
Of that upcoming deal, Pittsburgh Tech Council President and CEO Audrey Russo noted that “to look at the creation of wealth [from the public offering], it’s extremely positive. But it’s the ripple effect, of people investing in other companies, investing in other ideas, building more demand for services that are right at our feet, everything in terms of the ecosystem for restaurants and amenities — that’s what drives our economy.”
Beyond those more obvious effects of a public offering though, Russo added that this headquarters news, and all that comes with it, cement a new chapter for Pittsburgh. Where the tech industry previously struggled to compete with large and even fellow mid-size markets, commitments to the city like this one from Aurora are adding to a momentum that Russo thinks is long overdue. And while Pittsburgh isn’t yet at a level to be fully competitive with larger tech markets, she sees this as another sign the city’s on the right track.
“We look at places like Boston or San Francisco, and they’ve had a thorough pipeline of IPOs and massive exits,” Russo said. “So I like to believe that this is the great unleashing [for Pittsburgh].”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.