This self-driving tech company’s balance sheet is unaffected by the deep recession

April 9, 2020, 1:08 PM UTC

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I met Wednesday afternoon with Chris Urmson, CEO of the self-driving tech company Aurora, for another previously scheduled in-person meeting refashioned as video call. (We met by Hangout, a Google product, and I nearly wrote that we had Zoomed, a sign of how entrenched that video company has become.)

Urmson is the rare corporate leader who can claim with a straight face to be commercially unperturbed by the pandemic. Aurora is three years old and has raised $690 million from the likes of Sequoia, Greylock, Lightspeed, and Amazon. It has a notion of what its business will be, but no revenues to be lost in a downturn. “This is one of the few times I’m going to be excited to say we didn’t have meaningful revenues,” says Urmson. He says the company has “years of runway,” meaning the current rate at which it is burning cash will last it for some time.

Like some other autonomous vehicle startups, Aurora is pursuing a type of sensing technology called LIDAR. LIDAR has a twist I’m not competent to explain (but Apple also just put it in the newest iPad Pro). Still, the company thinks it can be an independent player in a field that feels as crowded as the early car industry itself. Most of those companies went out of business.

Urmson figures there will eventually be a total of five or six major self-driving car forces: two or three in the U.S, an equal number in China (who largely won’t be allowed to compete with each other), and one from somewhere else. He aims for Aurora, with its balance sheet unaffected by a deep recession (unlike GM’s Cruise, Ford’s Argo AI, and Uber’s self-driving unit), to be one of the survivors. Just as Alphabet’s Waymo, which Urmson helped start, won’t make cars, neither will Aurora. It aims to place its “driver”—a collection of software, sensors, and maps—into other manufacturers’ vehicles. (Fiat Chrysler and Hyundai are partners.)

Aurora already relied heavily on simulations to train its technology, though its human-monitored cars are grounded like everyone else.

I’m looking forward to a test drive in an Aurora-powered vehicle. I wish its simulation technology could tell me when that will be.

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Meeska, Mooska, Mickey Mouse. Probably not surprising, but with everyone cooped up due to the pandemic, Disney says its new streaming service now has over 50 million paid subscribers around the world, almost double the total from two months ago.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Recall all the controversy over the much hyped and exaggerated 2017 deal for Foxconn to build a factory in Wisconsin? The factory never made TV displays as originally promised and hired only a fraction of the promised workforce. Now Foxconn says it will use the factory to make ventilators. We'll have to check back on this one.

Flying java. Delivery by drone seems perfectly suited for a pandemic, though the industry is still in its earliest days. Alphabet's Wing business has been conducting trials in rural Virginia and Australia. Now it says deliveries in those areas have more than doubled, with new customers like coffee shops signing up.

Crosseyed and painless. Some of the cool-looking portable devices that Microsoft showed off last fall, like the twin-screened Surface Neo, will not go on sale in 2020 as previously planned, Microsoft analyst Mary Jo Foley reports. The company, which has said that the coronavirus outbreak has affected its hardware supply chain, declined to comment on the delay.

We can remember it for you wholesale. The White House coronavirus task force run by Jared Kushner has allegedly asked tech and healthcare companies about creating a massive, realtime surveillance network of hospitals and treatment facilities, Politico reports. After Politico's article was published, a White House spokesman said: "This story makes no sense and is completely false."  


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a flood of unemployment claims that have overwhelmed computer systems in some states. That led New Jersey's governor to put out a call for programmers who know COBOL, the 60-year-old language that's surprisingly still in use in many places. Dave Gershgorn at One Zero takes a deep dive into COBOL world, still popular in government and banking, to explain what's going on.

“I show COBOL programs written in 1960 that you can still compile and run today,” says J. Ray Scott, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the few professors who still teaches COBOL. “I would hate to be a bank and have Python, and Python 3 came out and broke everything, and then we have to recompile all our code,” he said.

Scott attributes the lack of COBOL programmers to a number of issues, from the absence of an open-source version of the software in the ’80s and ’90s to the simple appeal of newer databases that natively connect to the internet. “There was a period of 20 years where people were sure COBOL was dead, so there was nobody teaching it, nobody learning it,” he said. “COBOL started before there were disc drives, let alone the internet.”


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The ‘green death’ movement: Scientific advances give more eco-friendly funeral options By Emily Gillespie

Why the U.S. shouldn’t let China dominate the digital currency race By Michael J. Casey

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Coronavirus relief funds should be used to pay for workers, not bail out corporations By Katie Porter and Sara Nelson

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If you've been looking at the sky the past few nights, you've probably seen the "Super Pink Moon," the biggest full moon of the year (and named after a spring flower, not any change in lunar appearance). rounded up some great photos people took. They can lift your spirits, for sure.

Aaron Pressman


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