Autonomous Driving Goes Into High Gear

By Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode, Wired

ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to Chris Urmson, CEO of the self-driving-truck company Aurora. They discuss new legislation in California that could help or hinder a driverless future, whether self-driving vehicles are actually safer, and the consequences for the transportation industry if (human) truck drivers become unnecessary.


Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Gideon Lichfield: Hello?

Lauren Goode: Hey, Gideon.

Gideon Lichfield: Lauren, is that you?

Lauren Goode: It’s me.

Gideon Lichfield: It’s kind of late. Why are you calling me this late?

Lauren Goode: Well, I’m calling you from a self-driving taxi.

Gideon Lichfield: Wait. As in totally driverless, no human?

Lauren Goode: Totally driverless, human-free. I can talk on my phone all I want. It’s pretty wild. And I just, I had to call you.


Gideon Lichfield: Hi, I’m Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, coming to you live from a totally driverless car, and this is Have a Nice Future, a podcast about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.

Gideon Lichfield: Each week we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.

Lauren Goode: Our guest this week is Chris Urmson. He was one of the early leaders of Google’s self-driving-car project, and he’s the current CEO of Aurora, a company that does automated trucking.

Chris Urmson (audio clip): I think it’s much less a desire about making things autonomous and much more about improving quality of life.

Gideon Lichfield: So Lauren, is this your first time?


Lauren Goode: Are you asking me if I’ve been around the block before?

Gideon Lichfield: Oh, I know you’ve been around the block before. No, I’m asking, is this your first time in a self-driving car?

Lauren Goode: It’s actually my second time, and I have to say I’ve been blown away by this experience. I’m sitting in this car right now, and I’m in the back seat, but I have a full view of the “driver.” There’s just no one in the driver’s seat, but the wheel is turning, I’ve got navigation open in front of me, I can control the temperature and the radio, I can even play trivia back here, and we just pulled up to a stoplight, and yep, the car knew to stop. It’s pretty crazy. Have you been in one of these taxis?

Gideon Lichfield: No. I mean, I’ve seen self-driving cars all over San Francisco, but I didn’t know you could hail one as a taxi.

Lauren Goode: Yes, I think only one or two services right now will actually let beta testers hail them like a taxi, but the rest of them are just cruising all around San Francisco testing. And there’s actually been some interesting legislation happening here in California that could affect the broader self-driving industry too, which is what we’re gonna get into on today’s show.

Gideon Lichfield: Is self-driving even still a thing we’re expecting? I mean, I remember a decade ago we were promised full autonomy by this point.

Lauren Goode: Yeah, and flying cars.

Gideon Lichfield: And flying cars, and who knows what else. And then there was that fatal self-driving Uber crash in 2018—WIRED profiled the operator of that car last year. And then I keep seeing stories about self-driving companies shuttering, or pivoting, or Teslas on Full Self-Driving mode crashing into things. So I’ve been starting to think that maybe we’re not gonna let go of the steering wheel anytime soon.

Lauren Goode: Well, you make some good points, but that’s not what Chris Urmson thinks. OK, it’s worth noting that Aurora’s big focus isn’t on robotaxis. So he didn’t really comment much on those. What they do focus on is trucking. But the idea is generally the same, right? Take a vehicle that typically a very distracted human driver would operate, and then for safety reasons, make it automated. And you know, for efficiency reasons too, because always be optimizing.

Gideon Lichfield: Oh yes, efficiency capitalism, we always seem to come back to that here on this podcast. Anyway, are you now pretty much sold on autonomous cars, like you’d happily quit driving?

Lauren Goode: Well, despite how fun this ride is, I mean, actually, I don’t feel the least bit alarmed being in this car right now. Maybe I should. I still have some real concerns. And I think that you’re gonna hear some of those in this conversation with Chris.

Gideon Lichfield: And that is coming up right after the break. Get it? The break!

Lauren Goode: [Chuckle] I didn’t get it. Could you explain it to me, please?

Gideon Lichfield: I’ll talk to you later.


Lauren Goode: Chris Urmson, thanks so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.

Chris Urmson: Oh, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Lauren Goode: Are you having a nice future?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. You know what? There’s some things that I wish were a little better around the environment and politics, but you don’t get a chance to work on something exciting, get to work on it with amazing people—healthy family, yeah. Things are locally good, globally could use some work.

Lauren Goode: Well, you are working on things that are in the area of solutions around that—electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. So I have to tell you, last night I went for a ride in a totally driverless car around San Francisco. If I can be totally honest, I loved it.

Chris Urmson: Yeah, it’s one of these things where, you know, over the last 20 years I’ve worked in this space and you get people that come in to ride in one of these vehicles and the number of times I’ve had somebody get into a vehicle and the first five or 10 minutes they’re a little bit anxious, they’re kind of hyper alert and vigilant. And then 10 minutes in they’re like, is this all it does? And 15 minutes they’re in the back checking their phone, and their email. And it’s amazing how quickly people adapt to it and enjoy it.

Lauren Goode: Before Aurora, you led Google’s self-driving car team. How was it that you landed on trucks?

Chris Urmson: We’re focused on trucking first because we see that as the right entry application for the technology. That today, we see a real need for safety and improvement of safety on the road. Trucks are involved in a half million accidents a year in the US and we see an opportunity to reduce that dramatically. We just all lived through the supply chain crisis. So that opportunity to improve the quality of a fundamental part of the US ecosystem and economy seems like an incredible opportunity as well. And then we see this real opportunity to build a business here that the value of moving goods through the world is high. And so, as a company trying to build a technology and deploy it and actually see it used and be useful for folks, that’s a good place to start.

Lauren Goode: What were some of the bottlenecks that you experienced at Google that informed the way that you’re building Aurora?

Chris Urmson: Things we thought about were, while it’s important to be driving out on the road to understand what’s happening out there and, to some degree, really, you can’t get to enough scale in driving on the road to build confidence in the safety of the system alone. And so we invested in simulation technology, which is the heart of how we develop our system. Similarly, we thought about how, can you see far enough to drive a truck down the road? And when we found the company, there wasn’t a lidar technology that could do that. And so that was a technology that we’ve been investing in for the last five years that is really one of the key enablers for us to be able to drive trucks safely at speed down the road. So those are a couple of the areas where we saw real opportunity.

Lauren Goode: So you’re not making the trucks—you have a package of technology software that goes into the trucks that’s called Aurora Driver?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. The way to think about it is today, if you’re a trucking company, you will go to a manufacturer, say PACCAR, and you’ll buy a Peterbilt 579 tractor, alright? That’s the truck part of it. And then you’ll hire a driver to operate that truck, and then you’ll get paid for pulling loads through the world. And what we’re building at Aurora is that driver. And so, you know in the future, if you’re one of our customers, you’ll call up PACCAR or Volvo, the other truck company that we work with today, and you’ll say, we wanna buy one of those trucks and we’d like to buy it with the Aurora Driver installed on it, and then you’ll pay Aurora as we drive the truck for you, much like you do today.

Lauren Goode: So it seems like safety is really at the core of what you’re striving for here, and safety in particular with self-driving semi-trucks. So forgive me if this is sort of a basic question, but I’m guessing other people are wondering too, like how are self-driving cars safer?

Chris Urmson: It’s a great question and it’s a very nuanced question. How do you figure out that they are safer? One part of it is that they don’t get distracted, right? And this is surprisingly important that you or I, when we’re driving down the freeway, particularly if it’s been a long day or if we didn’t get much sleep last night, it’s easy for our attention to wander because driving most of the time feels really easy. It’s easy to be distracted by those things. And so it’s hard to underestimate the value of just, this is its one job, it’s driving down the road and it’s paying attention to it the whole time. There’s other parts of it, which are that when I wanna make a lane change on the freeway, I have a look at the traffic in front of me and say, OK, I’ve got time to make a look. I look over my shoulder, I check to see if there’s a vehicle there. If there isn’t, then I start to make my lane change. But if there is, then I have to look back and forward, in front of me. And if that vehicle in front of me is suddenly stopped and I didn’t expect it, then it’s kinda sketchy. And so the fact that we can look 360 degrees the whole time, as a self-driving vehicle is actually really powerful.

Lauren Goode: What about the cars or trucks actually making the decision though over how to handle a situation like that? How are you programming Aurora semi-trucks and the self-driving technology?

Chris Urmson: It turns out that the federal government, through the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, they’ve enumerated all the ways vehicles get into crashes. And so we are going through the process of looking into all those ways, creating simulations off them, and we’ve built tens of thousands of these simulations and then asking, what would the Aurora Driver do in this situation? And so, in the situations where it’s possible to avoid, we wanna make sure that the Aurora Driver can, and where it can’t, we wanna make sure it’s mitigating and doing the “right thing” to reduce the risk of that event.

Lauren Goode: And truck drivers are actually much more likely to be killed on a job than the average American worker because of increased risks.

Chris Urmson: Yeah, that’s right. It turns out that if you’re driving a truck in America, you’re about 10 times as likely to die on the job as the average American.

Lauren Goode: So how is your data playing out right now in, let’s still call it early stages for Aurora, when you compare the accident rates of your truck drivers in autonomous semi-trucks versus those that are totally human operated?

Chris Urmson: Through the course of this year, so far, we’ve driven 100,000 miles and we’ve had no events that would’ve resulted in an accident. We did have one situation we experienced where someone was driving a light vehicle on the road near one of our trucks, and they basically fell asleep at the wheel. And that vehicle drifted over a couple of lanes, and then bumped into the side of our trailer. We, you know, the automated driving system, the Aurora Driver tried to move over to make space for it, but couldn’t get far enough away from it. The car bounced off, came to a stop, fortunately everybody walked away. And for a car-truck accident, it was about as good as it can get. But it’s a reminder of how challenging driving can be, but we saw the Aurora Driver behave in the way we want. And in fact, we took this a step further and we looked at the accident reports for all of the fatal accidents that had happened on the route that our trucks drive today between Dallas and Houston. And it turns out there was about 30 of them. And of the 29 of them where the Aurora Driver could have been operating, we simulated those and saw that the Aurora Driver would’ve avoided all of those collisions. That was 29 fatal crashes that would not have occurred if the Aurora Driver had been operating the vehicle that initiated it. Which is kind of incredible, if you think about it. And these are the kind of things where you see a real opportunity to improve the status quo.

Lauren Goode: Of the semi-trucks that you’re currently testing. I think you have 31 trucks on the road in Texas, is that correct?

Chris Urmson: That sounds about right. Yeah.

Lauren Goode: There are still human operators inside of them to ensure everything goes smoothly. When do you anticipate that you might phase the human out of the equation?

Chris Urmson: People will always be part of our business, of course, but we’re working to have our trucks operating next year without people on board.

Lauren Goode: So by 2024, without any people.

Chris Urmson: By the end of 2024.

Lauren Goode: By the end of 2024?

Chris Urmson: Yeah.

Lauren Goode: OK.

Chris Urmson: That’s what we’re working towards. Yeah.

Lauren Goode: So what, I mean, what does that mean for the truck driver shortage? What does that mean for people who are career drivers?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. So, today in the US we’re short something like 80,000 drivers. And by the end of this, the end of the decade, we expect that to double. What we expect will happen is that the Aurora Driver will do more of the long haul trips and human drivers will do more local drives. As we look forward, if you are a truck driver today, my expectation is you’ll be able to retire a truck driver if you want to. But along the way, there’s gonna be all kinds of new and interesting opportunities in logistics, whether it’s working in a command center and remotely supervising vehicles or terminal operations, or, you know, in our case we’ve, we have a number of folks who are vehicle test operators. So there’s gonna be a whole proliferation of new jobs, as it becomes more efficient to move goods through the world.

Lauren Goode: So you don’t think the job of truck driver will disappear completely.

Chris Urmson: I think over the long term, I think they will. As a society, we can look at this and say, it’s really important that we move goods through the world and we really appreciate the people who are doing it, but do we really want them to be doing it?

Lauren Goode: Do you see it as your responsibility to address the displacement of truck drivers? Should self-driving trucks take over completely?

Chris Urmson: Today already we work with colleges in Montana and in Pittsburgh to create new programs, so technician programs for automated technology, technician programs around the things like the optics that go into the lidar. So we’re trying to help build the training infrastructure for the jobs in this industry in the future already. And I think I take some inspiration from the banking industry where when the automated teller rolled out it was, geez, we’re gonna have fewer people in banking and all these people are gonna lose their jobs. And what happened in practice is because the teller was able to take some of the mundane mechanical parts out of the job, they were able to do that more efficiently, they were to open traumatically more branches and the branch job instead of being this kind of, rote counting money out and signing checks—turn into one that was a higher value job. And actually I think banking employment has increased with the automated teller deployment.

Lauren Goode: Chris I have to say, I think you’re the first person who’s ever come on this podcast to say you’ve been inspired by the banking industry.

Chris Urmson: Yeah. I don’t know about inspired by, but look to that as a trajectory for technology.

Lauren Goode: OK. We’ll cross that over our bingo card. The Have a Nice Futurebingo card.

Chris Urmson: There we go.

Lauren Goode: So in a lot of interviews you’ve also focused on how much faster goods will be delivered. I think you said before, if it takes a human driver two to three days to go from Dallas to LA by comparison it would take an autonomous truck just one day. What is actually the stronger argument? Is it safety or is it about streamlining production when it comes to deliveries or shipped goods? It’s commerce, it’s efficiency. What’s your strongest pitch there?

Chris Urmson: It’s an add. And I think that’s one of the things that’s exciting about the technology is that you get both. You don’t get the efficiency benefits, you don’t get the economic benefits without the safety benefits. And so one of the things that I think about with automotive safety is that a lot of the time it’s about prohibition. Don’t look at your phone while driving. But of course, like people do, in contrast with this technology whether it’s in moving goods or moving people, you’ll get the benefit of moving through the world of whether it’s delivering goods or getting where you’re going, but you don’t have to have the prohibition at that point because you’re not driving of looking at the phone or watching a video or having a nap. And so I think that it’s a false choice to ask whether it’s one or the other. It’s actually the fact that you get both.

Lauren Goode: So we should definitely talk about AB 316, which is a bill in California where we both are, that if passed would require human operators in all trucks within the state. I imagine this is a big concern for you.

Chris Urmson: It would be sad for the state not to benefit from this technology. It’s been incubated here and grown here. And it’ll be disappointing. As we look at building our business though there’s 49 other states. And so my expectation is as we are able to demonstrate that tech, the benefits of the technology, demonstrate the safety, should AB 316 pass out of the congressional process that ultimately California will want this technology and kind of figure it out. But it’s certainly disappointing given the role that California has played in incubating and developing this technology to see this moving forward.

Lauren Goode: We were having a conversation on my other podcast, Gadget Lab, just last week with my colleague Aarian Marshall who covers the transportation industry. Maybe you’ve spoken to her before. And I asked her, it seems like robotaxis are getting a lot of the attention right now, and it seems like people aren’t talking as much about trucks. Do you expect that Aurora will ever get into robotaxis or robobikes?

Chris Urmson: Robobikes? No. On the other one, we work with Uber and Toyotatoday, and as we’ve designed the Aurora Driver, we’ve really thought of it as a common system to work on both trucks and cars. And it’s literally the same software, literally the same hardware that is on our trucks and is on our cars. We see that transferability and if you come to Texas, you can see our cars driving around. You can see our big 18 wheelers driving around as well.

Lauren Goode: After my Cruise experience, just earlier this week, I’m feeling like, wow, this is really the future. But the autonomous car market has really ebbed and flowed over the past decade or so, and I think that some people are rightfully concerned with the longevity or success of autonomy as a future business. What are your long-term projections for the future of the autonomous vehicle market?

Chris Urmson: If you look at the trucking landscape today, we look out and see a relatively empty playing field that, again, many of the competitors have passed out of existence or are moving out of existence. And we just raised a significant amount of capital, about $853 million from the public markets. And so what we’re doing here seems to be working. That model that we’ve developed, the team that we’ve built, the technology we’re delivering seems to be working well. And so we anticipate, seeing this come to fruition and growing a heck of a business, and doing a whole lot of good in the world.

Lauren Goode: Why do you think there is such a desire for more parts of our society to become autonomous? What is the incentive or the benefit outside of a more capitalistic driven, positive sort of streamlining efficiency, being more productive? Where does this desire to make things autonomous come from?

Chris Urmson: I think it’s much less a desire about making things autonomous and much more about improving quality of life. The freedom and flexibility that’s come from technological advance has been profound. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. And this just happens to be the flavor of technological advance that we’re observing right now, but we just live through a transformational period with the internet and then smartphones. It’s part of that constant march forward of improving quality of life.

Lauren Goode: Do you have any trepidation?

Chris Urmson: About getting in our trucks?

Lauren Goode: Yeah.

Chris Urmson: No.

Lauren Goode: No. OK.

Chris Urmson: We really take developing it safely, seriously. But then certainly right now, as we’re developing it, we have our operators in there, and these are folks that take their job incredibly seriously that we train, that understand their responsibility and just do an amazing job. And so, yeah, I have no trepidation about that at all.

Lauren Goode: What does keep you up at night?

Chris Urmson: I worry about climate change, frankly. I have two college-aged kids at this point and want them to enjoy the quality of life and experiences that I’ve had and hopefully better. And they need to have a healthy planet to be able to do that.

Lauren Goode: Yeah. That’s a whole other podcast, Chris.

Chris Urmson: Yes, indeed.

Lauren Goode: One of the premises of our show is that we talk to people with big, audacious, exciting ideas. We even say this in the beginning of every episode, but sometimes these ideas are also unnerving, And so how often is it that you get to talk to people who are unnerved by your technology, and what do you share with them to try to assuage them?

Chris Urmson: We’re making trucks that drive around the road 70,000 pounds with nobody in them.

Lauren Goode: Right. [Chuckle]

Chris Urmson: It is a very natural thing to have questions. It’s a very natural thing to be concerned about that. And so the opportunity to talk to people and, one, demonstrate the care that we put into doing it. How much thought we’ve put into, how do we know it’s driving well? How do we know it’s gonna fail when things fail, that it’s gonna do so in a way that mitigates the risk from that. Talking about those concrete points, really, I think helps.

Lauren Goode: Chris Urmson, thank you so much for joining me on, Have a Nice Future.

Chris Urmson: Thanks so much for having me. It was great.

Lauren Goode: I hope you have a nice future, a nice self-driving future.

Chris Urmson: You too.


Gideon Lichfield: So Lauren, you made it out of the robotaxi alive?

Lauren Goode: I did. I’m here. I’m back in studio podcasting with you in my comfy chair, which I don’t think is going to autonomously roll across the room anytime soon.

Gideon Lichfield: Great.

Lauren Goode: So I’m curious. After listening to my conversation with Chris, are you feeling more or less confident in the future of autonomous vehicles?

Gideon Lichfield: I wanna get something straight first. You mentioned this bill in California, AB 316 that would require human operators in trucks. So are you telling me that right now in California you can have a truck go down the freeway with nobody at the wheel?

Lauren Goode: No, we are not that lawless. If it’s a vehicle that weighs under 10,000 pounds, which is basically no bigger than a minivan, you can test and operate without a human behind the wheel in California. But autonomous vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds are banned altogether. So what AB 316 would do is it would let autonomous vehicles over 10,000 pounds operate, but only with a human behind the wheel.

Gideon Lichfield: OK. And a typical truck is how big?

Lauren Goode: Well, a medium duty truck would be between 10,000 and 25,000 pounds. A semi-truck, more than that. The US does have a federal limit though, of 80,000 pounds.

Gideon Lichfield: OK. So the autonomous vehicle industry like Aurora is opposing AB 316 because they want fully autonomous trucks without humans behind the wheel. They want a more liberal form of the law. So where do things stand with this bill right now?

Lauren Goode: I mean, they’re opposing it because the California Department of Motor Vehicles has been looking to introduce a regulatory framework as soon as next year that would allow for more autonomous testing. And the industry then sees this as something that would be a roadblock because it would require that human element. So on the regulatory front, things in California heated up right after we taped this conversation with Chris. California Governor, Gavin Newsom, sided with the robots. He said in late August that he opposes AB 316, which would slow out the rollout of autonomous vehicles across the state.

Gideon Lichfield: In other words, he wants a more liberal law.

Lauren Goode: He wants a more liberal law. Yeah. And this really upset the teamsters, the union folks who are in support of the bill, as well as the Democrats who first presented the bill. People who really want to slow down the autonomous vehicle industry, point to some of San Francisco’s larger issues or past examples of regulatory bodies just not doing enough to govern big tech or labor unrest as reasons why this should not just be unleashed onto the world. But then representatives for the autonomous car industry will say, basically, isn’t California supposed to be this place of innovation? Everyone’s gonna move to Texas, which is what Chris Urmson has done.

Gideon Lichfield: Well, I remember that Arizona was also a state that made very, very liberal laws for testing autonomous vehicles. That was why a lot of the companies moved to Phoenix, and that was why the fatal Uber crash that we wrote about happened in Tempe.

Lauren Goode: That’s right. And you’ll notice that we’re talking about red states and blue states, but folks on the Teamster side will say, this should be bipartisan. Basically, safety and regulatory issues should not be partisan issues. We should really consider, first of all, safety and second of all, jobs.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. What do you think about the safety thing? Chris seemed very convinced that self-driving trucks will be safer and maybe he’s right. All you need to do is look around when you’re driving. Everyone’s on their phone all the time, and the one accident that he described was somebody in a car falling asleep at the wheel and hitting one of their autonomous trucks.

Lauren Goode: I also felt pretty convinced by his argument that this could be safer. It doesn’t mean we’re there yet, though. I mean, technologically, it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet, because a week after San Francisco opened up its rules, so a company like Cruise and Waymo could operate their robotaxis 24/7 in San Francisco, they ended up scaling back because there was an accident involving a Cruise car and an emergency vehicle, and it wasn’t the Cruise car’s fault. The Cruise reportedly turned into a lane on a green light and then a firetruck was cruising through, no pun intended on the cruising through, but the San Francisco Fire Department says there have been, at least, I’m going to get the data here, 66 incidents with firetrucks and Cruise cars since May of 2022. And the California DMV just reported that Zoox’s cars, which are owned by Amazon, have crashed 39 times in San Francisco since early 2022. Across the state of California, Waymo’s collisions make up the majority of crashes, 110 crashes, and Cruise has recorded 64. I wouldn’t attempt to do any back of the envelope math to try to figure out how this compares to our everyday car crashes because these are really serious numbers to consider, but these crashes with self-driving cars are not nothing, and they tend to get a lot of attention because it’s a totally driver-free car cruising around your city.

Gideon Lichfield: Well, that is the big problem. I mean, you have to feel a little bit of sympathy for the self-driving car companies because even if indeed they are safer, every single accident is going to get poured over in extremely fine detail. And maybe it’s just a matter of time before people get more comfortable with self-driving cars and accept that there is going to be an accident rate, albeit a lower one than with human operated cars because we’ve become obviously very blase about the fact that thousands of people die on the road every single month in cars driven by humans. I think maybe part of what makes autonomous vehicles scary is that there is still that element of mystery. We can’t quite know why they did what they did, why they crashed when they crashed, and we kid ourselves that if it’s a human behind the wheel, we can know somehow what might’ve gone wrong or we can imagine how we might’ve avoided that situation if we were driving ourselves. And it’s that illusion of agency I think that allows us to feel safer. Whereas with a robot vehicle, we don’t quite know what’s going on in its robot brain.

Lauren Goode: I have to say that where I land, despite finding the driver free rides quite fun and thrilling, I’m still in favor of all of this slowing down a bit.

Gideon Lichfield: What would make you feel safer then?

Lauren Goode: That’s a really good question, and I’m not totally sure because I’m not sure that it’s a specific element of the technology that I could name right now or any kind of number of vehicles on the road here in San Francisco where I see them every single day now. I don’t know if that would necessarily make me feel better about it as much as it is the idea that our governing bodies really are looking out for the best interests of citizens and not necessarily being swayed by big tech. There is incredible innovation here in California. There’s incredible innovation in Silicon Valley. This is what we cover. I mean, this stuff is literally going to change the world, I think, but I don’t necessarily know if that has to happen as quickly as it’s happening until we’ve considered all of the implications and really carefully considered the regulatory framework for this.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah, I think I agree with you and not because I think self-driving cars are necessarily more dangerous than we’re being told. I suspect they’re probably safer in the end. I think the problem again is knowing what went wrong when it went wrong and who’s liable, and the problem of liability and responsibility is still really fuzzy when it’s a robot driver. That was clear in the case of the fatal Uber self-driving crash that we wrote about, and right now there doesn’t seem to be a clear framework for deciding who is in the wrong if a crash happens between a human-driven car and a self-driving car where the self-driving car seems to have made a mistake. So until those issues are resolved, I think the rollout of self-driving cars is going to continue to be pretty slow.

Lauren Goode: So what you’re saying is the next time you’re in San Francisco, you’d rather have a human Lauren giving you a lift somewhere, checking my slack all along the way, every red light.

Gideon Lichfield: I mean, you might be a bigger risk to my life than a self-driving car, but you’re a better conversationalist.

Lauren Goode: Not the first time I’ve heard that line.

Gideon Lichfield: [Laughter] That’s our show for today. Thank you for listening. Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren Goode: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, you should tell us, leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to subscribe so you can get new episodes each week.

Gideon Lichfield: You can also email us on Tell us what you’re worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we’ll try to answer them with our guests.

Lauren Goode: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Revelo.

Gideon Lichfield: See you back here next Wednesday and until then, have a nice future.

Gavin Newsom Sides With the Robots in Autonomous Vehicle Debate

By Jeremy B. White, Politico

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Democrats trying to slow the rollout of driverless trucks are facing a powerful opponent: Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Democratic governor and longtime Silicon Valley evangelist has sided with a home-state industry over legislative Democrats — both in the state Legislature and in Congress — as powerful labor groups seize on road safety concerns to slow the rollout of autonomous cars and trucks that could push their members out of work. The issue has reverberated from San Francisco, where city authorities unsuccessfully fought a robotaxi rollout, to Sacramento, where a labor-championed bill would effectively ban driverless big rigs until the Legislature authorizes them.

Newsom’s administration has forcefully opposed the state trucking bill, a development first reported here. It is an unusual step for a governor who rarely weighs in on pending legislation, and a clear signal that Newsom prizes the state’s economic competitiveness over concerns about job losses and road safety voiced by unions, city officials and leading lawmakers.

“Our state is on the cusp of a new era and cannot risk stifling innovation at this critical juncture,” Dee Dee Myers, the administration’s top business official, wrote in a letter to legislators opposing the bill. She warned that other states “are actively positioning themselves to lure away California-based companies and the investments and jobs they bring.”

Self-driving cars have logged millions of miles in California, but the state has yet to allow for fully driverless trucks, even as Texas and Arizona let autonomous trucks cruise their roads without humans on board. California lawmakers have urged a more deliberate approach to technology that is poised to transform how people move through cities and upend industries from trucking to transit. The trucking bill has advanced by enormous bipartisan margins and won the support of the three House Democrats running to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The autonomous vehicle industry argues dissenters are stalling an innovation that has already arrived and will bolster public safety and efficiency — an argument Myers echoed in her letter, warning the bill “runs counter to our state’s business climate.”

More than a decade after California passed a law to test the technology on public roads, lawmakers are adopting a more cautious stance. They argue the advent of transformative technologies — from driverless vehicles to automation and artificial intelligence — require policymakers to be proactive on regulations.

“They think I’m not embracing the future,” said Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), who’s carrying the bill to prohibit autonomous trucks without humans onboard. “But I am, because I think if we don’t do it right, the first thing that’s going to happen is we’ll be on the front page of the paper for what we’ve done wrong.”

But the industry has an ally in Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who has deep ties to tech, including longstanding relationships with industry figures like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the godfather of one of his children. Newsom was more amenable than union-aligned Democrats to negotiating a worker classification deal with ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. And he has advocated for autonomous vehicles specifically: In 2015, as lieutenant governor, he enthusiastically rode an early AV model and warned the state against overregulating a “promising industry.”

“It’s consistent with where he’s been since he was in San Francisco,” said Lenny Mendonca, who preceded Myers as Newsom’s top economic adviser. “He obviously understands the importance of technology and innovation, to the economy, to the budget, to employment, to the creation of the next generation of things that California is good at.”

Driverless cars have gone from a curiosity to an unavoidable fixture of San Francisco’s streets. Conflict has followed. The California Public Utilities Commission voted last week to expand paid rides over the strenuous objections of city and public safety officials who warned cars were snarling traffic and blocking first responders. The city challenged the expansion — and days later, the California DMV directed Cruise to halve its fleet following a fresh wave of incidents.

State lawmakers and union allies who want to slow the rollout of autonomous trucks have pointed to San Francisco’s struggles as a cautionary tale. The Teamsters’ bill effectively circumvents a nascent state regulatory process, seeking to wrest authority back from regulators whom legislators accuse of dozing off at the wheel and becoming beholden to the industries they oversee. They warn that a 10,000 pound truck can cause far more damage than a passenger vehicle.

“I’m really hoping the robots take over sooner rather than later and give us increased safety,” Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), who chairs the body’s transportation committee, said during floor debate. Despite documented issues like vehicles stopping unexpectedly and blocking fire trucks, Friedman said, “DMV continues to issue permits for them to keep operating — I believe for profit reasons rather than public safety reasons.”

The DMV rejected those “unfounded assertions” in a letter opposing the bill on the grounds it would “have a chilling effect” on safety improvements. The agency noted autonomous vehicles have driven more than 18 million miles on California roads with no collision fatalities and few injuries.

Tens of thousands of people die in vehicle crashes each year, including nearly 5,800 who died in truck accidents in 2021 — a substantial increase from 2020. While the autonomous vehicle industry often cites that toll, self-driving vehicles are not infallible: they were involved in roughly 150 crashes between September of 2022 and last month.

In recent months the vehicle companies have gone on the offensive, forming a group that has lobbied lawmakers and launched advertisements to block the trucking bill and support the San Francisco expansion. They say the vehicles can improve safety and reduce carbon emissions, and argue that California, by pursuing an effective ban on autonomous trucking, is already driving homegrown technology to other states.

“Only in California, which ironically is where a lot of these companies are based, has this legislation gone this far,” said Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association Executive Director Jeff Farrah. “You have companies that are largely based in California, because California has been a technology hotbed for four decades. Those companies are now spending their capital investment in places like Dallas, Texas.”

California’s formidable organized labor movement has been forcing the issue, arguing that companies are sacrificing safety to save labor costs to the detriment of displaced workers and the public, as unions go on offense in other capitals. Teamsters Western Region Vice President Peter Finn linked that fight to labor unrest in a very different industry this summer as striking actors and writers challenge the role of AI in reshaping their professional futures and livelihoods.

“This is not just another incremental iteration of technology development,” Finn said. “This has the chance to change everything and have such a dramatic impact on eliminating jobs.”

Driverless trucks would almost certainly displace some workers, particularly on long highway routes. They would be less likely to be used for last-mile deliveries to cities and warehouses. Industry advocates argue they would complement human workers, and point to a shortage of truckers and research saying autonomous trucks could generate economic activity.

Automation could replace up to 294,000 long-distance drivers and trade higher-paid jobs for more precarious work in an industry that has long grappled with misclassification, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli found in research commissioned in 2018 by the labor-aligned UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. Viscelli said that ubiquitous autonomous trucks could squeeze unionized workforces like the United Parcel Service.

“The Teamsters and UPS need to be concerned about the competitive advantage these are going to give to Amazon and others,” Viscelli said. “Those impacts are going to be transformative.”

The labor-driven resistance has not been isolated to California. Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said the Teamsters have “moved aggressively to halt the rollout of autonomous vehicles” in other states, although bills similar to California’s have faltered in a half-dozen legislatures this year. Kovacevich argued California lawmakers cannot act objectively as autonomous vehicle gatekeepers.

“I don’t think that will be a rigorous safety analysis. It will be a political analysis,” Kovacevich said. “Movements to hit pause on progress rarely succeed.”

But California Labor Federation chief Lorena Gonzalez, who oversaw an effort to rally unions against the San Francisco expansion by warning of massive job threats, pointed to a “larger conversation we’re going to force” about how technology is shaping the workforce.

“The real problem in California has not been Democrats versus Republicans. The real problem has been these elite tech billionaire bros who have decided they’re going to implement their classist policies on California,” Gonzalez said. “All of this sounds really cool at a cocktail party, but I’m not interested in conversations at a cocktail party. I’m interested in real conversations about real workers.”

Autonomous Trucks are one Step Closer to Hitting the Road, Thanks to These Cleverly Designed Sensors

By Jesus Diaz, Fast Company

When Don Burnette founded Kodiak in 2018, an old trucking idiom was on repeat in his mind: “If the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.” That mantra fueled Burnette as he set out to find potential partners when building his autonomous-trucking company. He and his team wanted to design a commercial-ready product from the start, and not waste time with science experiments.

“We worked closely with our partners to understand their requirements and how they run their fleets,” he says. “One message that really stood out to me was that in trucking, every minute a truck is down matters.” That remit became the driving force behind Kodiak’s SensorPod, which won a 2023 Innovation by Design Award in the Automotive category.

Kodiak’s latest generation of SensorPods replace a truck’s stock side-view mirrors with a tidy package of all the sensors an autonomous vehicle requires to understand the world around it. The SensorPods are pre-calibrated and pre-built, and connect to the company’s Kodiak Driver system like Lego bricks.

Each unit houses all the necessary autonomous vehicle sensors, including one Hesai LiDAR (laser scanners that can see far away across any weather conditions), two ZF Full-Range 4D radars (which is designed to detect the orientation, distance, speed, and height of objects around the truck), and three optical cameras.

Burnette says a big part of designing a robust and easy-to-maintain autonomous-driving system was figuring out how to service the sensors while out on the road when a specialized engineer would likely not be readily available. Kodiak designed the SensorPods to be modular; mechanics can swap them out without any specialized training or equipment, allowing for easy and fast service at any time and any location, even out on the open road.

Kodiak plans to launch its first fully autonomous truck in 2024 and to incorporate its technology into third-party fleets by 2025. Burnette believes that by the end of this decade, autonomous trucks will be commonplace on American highways, carrying freight safely and efficiently without a driver.

That doesn’t mean the immediate end for truckers. Burnette says the company is planning to leave the difficult work of local driving to trained, experienced humans. Kodiak’s objective is to improve the technology for long-haul routes. He believes that it still could be decades before you see driverless trucks backing up to your local grocery store. But with the global trucking industry grappling with increasing driver shortages and safety concerns, the idea of having reliable, automated, and safe long-haul road transportation seems like an appealing one for everyone, including the truckers themselves.

This story is part of Fast Company’s 2023 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world. Read more about the methodology behind the selection process.

Self-Driving Senior Shuttles Coming to Detroit

By Joe Guillen, Axios

Self-driving shuttles for older people and those with disabilities should be available in the city late next year.

Driving the news: City Council approved a $2.5 million contract last week with Ann Arbor-based May Mobility to provide free autonomous rides to the store, doctor’s office or other places for people 65 and older and those living with disabilities.

Why it matters: The project advances Detroit’s goal of being a leader in transportation innovation and should supplement the city’s troubled paratransit program.

State of play: Vehicle safety testing and development of the service’s mobile app starts this fall. Shuttles are expected to be available in spring 2024.

  • Research for the project began last year and is funded through 2026 with the help of a federal automated driving grant.
  • Ford and Mobileye are also exploring autonomous vehicles here, according to BridgeDetroit.

How it works: Riders will be able to book shuttles for daily transit needs on-demand or in advance through a mobile app, website or by phone.

  • Rides will be available in two different zones — one north of downtown and the other covering southeast neighborhoods, per Bridge.
  • Human operators will chaperone rides during the project to familiarize users with the technology and to assist riders getting on or off the shuttle.

What they’re saying: Tim Slusser, the city’s chief of mobility innovation, says the project will help solve transportation obstacles and build public trust in self-driving technology.

  • “We want Detroiters to feel safe and well-informed riding on and sharing the road with autonomous vehicles,” he said in a statement.

What’s next: Community outreach to finalize service routes begins this fall.

Standardizing The Autonomous Vehicle Future

By Selika Josiah Talbott, Forbes

It’s time to create AV benchmarking and enable widespread deployment and use of autonomous vehicles.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roadway crash deaths are increasing. Last year almost 43,000 people died in traffic related crashes in the United States, the most since 2005.

This seems astonishing given the increased usage of seatbelts, education on drunk driving and advancement of safety features in vehicles. But the leading causes of crash deaths are distracted driving, speeding or reckless driving and cell phone usage. The real issue in each of these instances is human behavior.

While some believe that autonomous vehicles have been an invention in search of a problem, those of us who deeply understand the technology and its benefits are clear-sighted and aware of a myriad of problems that autonomous vehicles can solve.

They can:

• Reduce the rise in crashes and fatalities

• Complement the diminishing workforce to move goods

• Address safety concerns in industries

• Improve stunted mobility where transportation is neither efficient nor accessible.

The industry has differing views as to the role of autonomous vehicles. Some look at autonomous vehicles as a toy – another status symbol for the very wealthy. Others focus on autonomous vehicles in the movement of freight and as an assist to fleets and yet others concentrate on the ability to address the need to provide efficient and affordable transportation.

No matter the use case, where is the synergy on non-differential hardware and software which would aid the widespread deployment and use of autonomous vehicles?

The autonomous vehicle industry would do well to take some lessons from the aviation industry. Airlines understand that where one fails in its safety technology or innovation everyone suffers. Deregulation rid the industry of administrative and judicial burdens, decreased costs and allowed more people to travel via plane. According to the international Air Transport Association, “Industry standards simplify common processes and reduce cost and complexity. They allow airlines to work seamlessly with each other and with other stakeholders such as travel agents, airports and governments. Standards encourage innovation and provide a better experience for passengers. Standards are developed and adopted under the IATA Conference structure, where all members are able to participate and vote…”

Airlines have long policed their activity by forming coalitions and determining standards of operations and benchmarking what is a necessity in order to ensure public trust and the safety of human life.

But what about autonomous innovation? We don’t have a federal regulatory standard on the autonomous movement of goods or people across the country. We have yet to agree upon a set of standards that ensures that one self-driving car meets the same rigorous analysis as the next. Without that, how is the public or legislators and lawmakers to opine and create a legal framework that will allow us to move into this future of mobility?

We don’t need know the secret sauce of each company’s vehicles. They can keep to themselves the things that make their technology unique in the autonomous vehicle space. But we certainly should be able to agree on standards that we will all live by in order to operate on the roadways, skyways and in all modes of autonomous transportation safely.

A standard would go a long way to reducing and preventing millions in traffic crashes anticipated between now and 2035. Self-driving cars have the potential to provide an 81% reduction in vehicle crashes in the United States.

Each year we delay having an agreed-upon standard means that more people will unnecessarily die on our roadways and that we will have fewer opportunities and options to eliminate traffic vehicle crashes. It’s time to step up as an industry, create benchmarking standards and enable widespread deployment and use of autonomous vehicles.

A Marathon, Not A Sprint: T&BB Interviews Nick Elder Of Torc Robotics

By Bradley Osborne, Truck & Bus Builder

When one talks about autonomous vehicles, it is all too easy to slip into science-fiction reveries of driverless vehicles everywhere, transporting people and goods without requiring any human input. However, that is a vision of the future which is not shared by Nick Elder of American tech firm Torc Robotics. Routes that take goods vehicles through busy urban environments, or to multiple pickup and drop-off locations, handling cargo that requires more active monitoring, create variables that become incredibly difficult for artificial intelligence to handle safely and effectively. As far as these last mile applications are concerned, Elder believes that human drivers will remain essential for many years to come: “arguably, I would say, indefinitely”.

Long haul is a different matter. A set route between A and B, along with extensive stretches of straight roads and fairly predictable traffic mean that long distance applications employing Class 8 trucks could be automated with relative ease. It is for this reason that Daimler Truck North America acquired a majority stake in Torc in 2019 and set the company to work on developing trucks with Level 4 autonomy.

Even so, automating Class 8 trucks is easier said than done, and self-driving vehicles will not be desirable for every long haul operation. Torc’s engineers do not pretend to know the exact wants and needs of operators: as such, in 2022 it established an advisory council, made up logistics firms providing a broad swathe of different services who regularly meet to provide feedback to Torc. Through this forum of potential end customers, Torc intends to learn how and where its technology could be put to commercial use in the heavy truck segment.

The company’s view is that autonomous vehicle development is a marathon, not a sprint. It explains Torc’s slow and steady approach, which Elder characterises as “practical” and “realistic”; an approach which takes its direction from the truck industry rather than blue sky thinking. Torc’s outlook for self-driving vehicles is based on deep expertise. Though the commercial vehicle industry first began to take notice of Torc only after the Daimler Truck acquisition, in fact the company’s experience with working on autonomous vehicle technology goes back to the mid-2000s. In that time, Elder said, the target dates for launching self-driving vehicles on the road for commercial use have been repeatedly pushed back, and some of the earliest contenders have had to drop out of the race. Elder therefore recognises “just how challenging” it will be to not only create a reliable autonomous truck, but to also scale up production and maintain self-driving fleets on the road.

I was surprised when Elder described the work culture of Torc as “blue collar”. On reflection, however, I see why that label might fit. The picture put across to me is of a company with a “can do” attitude, tempered by hardheaded common sense and a respect for limits. Torc has always been based in Blacksburg, a largeish town in mountainous southwest Virginia which is dominated by Virginia Tech (“Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University”), and Elder believes that this location has conferred some unique advantages. Being far away from Silicon Valley has, in Elder’s opinion, helped to keep Torc “humble”, fostering a work culture of “rolling up your sleeves, doing for the good of the team rather than looking for individual recognition”. Moreover, Blacksburg is much more the sort of place where somebody would want to settle down and raise a family than, say, San Francisco. Nevertheless, Torc recognised that the slower pace of Virginian life would not appeal to everybody, and hence it opened offices in Austin, Texas last year in a recruitment drive for more software developers.

From Virginia Tech to Daimler Truck

Torc traces its history back to the series of government funded competitions that are known collectively as the “DARPA Grand Challenge” – so called because its main sponsor is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. Elder told T&BB that excessive casualties suffered by the military due to roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) originally motivated DARPA’s decision to set up the first Grand Challenge in 2004. It was thought that encouraging the development of autonomous vehicle technology could lead to a usable fleet of unmanned military vehicles, meaning that humans could be taken entirely out of certain logistics operations that carry significant risks to life. However, with the third competition, the so-called “Urban Challenge”, DARPA switched the focus to vehicles that could obey traffic laws and avoid other road users. In this competition, held in 2007, a team called “VictorTango”, with a Ford SUV retrofitted with self-driving technology, came in third place out of 53.

It was a team made up of current students at Virginia Tech and graduates who had founded the “Torc Robotics” company in 2005. With the newfound recognition gained from success at the DARPA Urban Challenge, Torc went on to work with various branches of the defence department to explore the uses of vehicle autonomy. Torc also partnered with Caterpillar Inc, who wanted to take human drivers out of potentially dangerous situations in the construction and mining sectors. These projects occupied Torc for over a decade, until about 2017, when technological developments enabled the company to grasp new opportunities. Advancements in sensor technology, computer performance, and artificial intelligence encouraged Torc to look beyond the niche applications it had concerned itself with up until that date. Talks were begun with Daimler Truck, leading to the acquisition of a majority stake in Torc in 2019.

Today, Torc enjoys the backing of a multinational corporation which owns several truck brands in Europe, North America, and Asia. But Elder insisted that Torc fared well enough before the acquisition, making its living and slowly growing through its project involvements with the U.S. government and Caterpillar. Until 2019, Torc “had never taken any outside capital”, Elder said. And while he admits that the financial security is a huge boon to the company, Elder would not say that this was the main advantage of the relationship with Daimler Truck. Rather, he pointed to the German manufacturer’s extensive knowledge of and involvement in the truck segment as the primary reason for the relationship. In order to get to the “deep level of integration” with the chassis and the self-driving tech that Torc was aiming for, it was inevitable that the company would need a “strong partner” from the truck industry. Only by working closely with the OEM – in particular, with Daimler Truck’s ‘Freightliner’ brand – does Torc feel it can achieve a “viable, serviceable, scalable long term product”.

One might think that an AI-driver could be made to work in any type of vehicle. However, in Torc’s experience, developing a self-driving truck presents different challenges to those of an unmanned defence or mining vehicle. The principles are the same: the vehicle must be able to perceive its environment, identify obstacles and other road users, and take appropriate action to navigate safely. But the hardware and software requirements can change significantly, depending on the vehicle type, the application, and the environment. The viewing range and stopping distance required for a Class 8 truck travelling at highway speeds are different from those required for an urban robotaxi, for example. As such, the knowledge gained from working with Daimler Truck, together with the feedback from the advisory council have helped to flatten the learning curve for Torc.

The future of Torc and autonomous driving

When asked about the challenges which companies face in bringing a viable self-driving truck to market, Elder pointed to existing gaps in hardware technology and availability. In particular, off-the-shelf radar and lidar products that can meet the needs of autonomous vehicles are not yet available. Elder said that there are “ultra long range” lidar products that are currently in development, but it will be some time before these are available at scale. Not to mention, more time will be needed to integrate this hardware with Torc’s software.

An area of strength for Torc is vision-based perception, using cameras mounted all around the truck. This was bolstered by the recent acquisition of Algolux, a tech firm based in Montreal. Another area of expertise which Algolux is contributing is machine learning, helping Torc’s software to quickly identify and handle risky driving scenarios in real time. The cameras, however, will need to work in concert with radar and lidar to give the self-driving truck enough accurate information to make safe and intelligent choices. Putting together all the autonomous driving components into a single production package will be a collaborative effort between Torc and Daimler Truck.

When Torc started out in the mid-2000s, the motivation behind the development of autonomous vehicles was to save lives. In the truck sector, making safer vehicles is a worthy cause, and as such it is a priority of governments across the developed world. An unmanned truck which is not liable to human error – that is to say, the foibles of an inattentive or incautious driver – could dramatically reduce the risk of accident and therefore help to make the road safer for others. But Elder admits that the conversation has shifted in recent years. Promoters of self-driving trucks talk less about safety and more about total cost of ownership. Elder thinks this is “fair”: there are widespread shortages of human drivers, and in any case, a self-driving truck has the potential to overcome some of the obvious physical limitations which humans cannot. A self-driving truck does not need to sleep or take a toilet break. Theoretically, an operator could put one to use all hours, needing only to stop for maintenance or refuelling. The economic benefits of maximising the use of an expensive asset like this are apparent.

That is not to say that considerations of safety have fallen by the wayside. On the contrary, Elder insisted that Torc is committed to testing every component of its self-driving technology with “rigour” until it is assured that it has a product that it can release “out into the world” with confidence. The early days of the DARPA Grand Challenge and the hype over autonomous vehicles are in the past for Torc. Now the dust has settled somewhat following the first excitement, Elder feels that the autonomous vehicle sector is entering its maturation phase – during which, tech firms such as Torc will for the first time be able to offer commercially viable tools that are more than just demonstration vehicles. The word “tool” is key: the self-driving truck will be another instrument that will complement, not replace, the tools which are already at the operator’s disposal. Torc’s goal is not to “revolutionise” or “disrupt” long distance trucking, but to make a tool which is as reliable and as useful as possible to the industry. And so, we return to self-image of Torc as a tech firm with a blue collar ethic of diligence and common sense, so far removed from the visionary ideas of Silicon Valley. In the end, the slow and steady approach might put Torc in first place.

Vehicles of The Future: Peter Vaughan Schmidt Of Torc Robotics On The Leading Edge Technologies That Are Making Cars & Trucks Smarter, Safer, and More Sustainable

An Interview with David Leichner, Medium

The automotive industry has been disrupted recently with new exciting technologies that have made cars and trucks much smarter, much safer, and much more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.

What other exciting disruptive technologies will we see in the next few years? How much longer will fossil fuel-powered cars be produced? When will we see fully autonomous vehicles? Can we overcome the challenge of getting stuck in traffic? As cars become “moving computers”, do we have to worry about people hacking our cars? How else will our driving experience be different over the next five years? To address these questions, Authority Magazine started a new interview series about “Exciting Leading Edge Technologies That Are Making Cars & Trucks Smarter, Safer, and More Sustainable.” In this series, we are talking to leaders of automotive companies, automotive tech companies, EV companies, and other tech leaders who can talk about the vehicles of the future. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Vaughan Schmidt.

Prior to joining Torc Robotics in 2022, Dr. Peter Vaughan Schmidt was the head of the Autonomous Technology Group for Daimler Truck for three years. Before leading that organization, he managed the strategy organization for Daimler Truck, where his focus areas included the Chinese market, autonomous technology, electrification, connectivity and digital transformation.

Dr. Schmidt also previously led Daimler’s global product and platform management for medium and heavy truck engines worldwide, as well as holding roles in engine production and plant management.

Before joining Daimler, Dr. Schmidt was a principal and consultant at McKinsey & Company serving the automotive industry.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in the automotive industry?

I graduated with my Doctorate degree in Physics with no plan to join the automotive industry. Initially, I saw a career in academia first and industry research centers next, but eventually fell into a role as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, had a ton of fun and a steep learning curve, and moved up the ladder to an Associate Principal of Automotive and Manufacturing. This was the catalyst for me to join Daimler AG in 2005, starting as a project manager, where I developed into my ultimate role as the Head of Autonomous Technology for Daimler Trucks for three years.

When Torc Robotics became an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck AG in 2019, I worked very closely with the founding CEO to help drive the initiatives of our joint approach to develop and commercialize autonomous technology. In 2022, I became the CEO of Torc Robotics to help build on Torc’s long tradition of autonomous innovation and improving the safety of freight delivery.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

This is a difficult choice between my first ride in an autonomous truck at Torc’s Blacksburg office in September 2019 and the amazing amount of progress that had been made between that experience and my first Albuquerque, New Mexico Torc demo ride in 2022. In the fall of 2019, Torc and Daimler had just officially joined forces in our ground-breaking partnership. It was so cool to experience a class 8-truck driving autonomously.

While you could tell there was room to improve, I thought it was already a pretty good system and saw it had such massive potential to change the future of trucking. But then, being able to see the evolution from my first demo ride, to how much better the truck performed after Torc’s tremendous growth and laser focus on this specific use case in the intervening years was just incredible. I still get excited every time I visit our fleet testing operation in the Southwest U.S., especially when I get to ride along with our crews in the trucks. The energy and enthusiasm of Torc’rs for developing the future of trucking is contagious!

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

Our biggest project right now is bringing our autonomous trucking technology onto the roads. By conducting long-haul drive tests using Daimler trucks carrying concrete blocks and customer pilots with Schneider and CR England to move real cargo, we are able to work towards a safe, sustained, long-haul innovation in the freight industry, which is our top priority to ensure the technology is inherently safe before we place it on the market.

The Torc technology uses “experiences” to help it better adjust to how it drives. It’s one thing for a truck to learn how to drive in a desert with limited cars around, but it’s another for the technology to know how to adjust to aggressive drivers and human error. Through the sensors, the technology learns how to address these situations and better react to them in the future. However, testing can take up to a year to perfect as each test must run efficiently and effectively before it hits the market. If the technology does not pass one test, we rerun it until it’s correct, which, depending on the issue, can take a year or more. To help with this testing, we have a testing facility in Albuquerque, NM, Software Engineering and Development Center in Austin, TX and a Technology and Software Development Center in Stuttgart, Germany.

How do you think this might change the world?

Torc’s focus is helping the freight industry thrive by providing the safest, most reliable and most cost-effective trucking solution on the market. In doing so, Torc has the ability to help to improve the quality of life for all. Medicines and supplies for hospitals, food to keep grocery stores stocked, fuel for your local gas station and keeping the global economy going — these are just some of the societal benefits of freight. Autonomous trucking has the added benefits of being more environmentally friendly, providing cost-efficiencies for our customers and making the roads safer for all road users.

Autonomous trucking can also create more jobs in the industry. It is a common misconception that autonomous driving removes jobs, but it’s quite the opposite. Autonomous trucking is created to help relieve drivers from long-haul drives that keep them away from home for week-long stretches and address the growing truck driver shortage. Autonomous trucking has the ability to create new and different jobs in the industry — across development, testing, training and operations — and allow drivers to take on shorter, less intense routes. These new jobs will require people with a range of skills, training and education and provide opportunities to even more people and offer a better quality of life.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I’m a “glass half-full” person, so while there are potential risks and challenges with any technology, I prefer to focus on the mitigations we can implement to manage them. Autonomous trucking has so much positive potential — from the speed of delivery to creating more cost-effectiveness, to better use of assets and making the highways a safer place. All of this is only possible with careful management of the technology and living by our core value of doing the right thing. It’s important to note that while Torc is in the development stage of our autonomous technology, the technology is never tested without a safety driver overseeing the operation of the truck. Our safety drivers have extensive training and experience and provide important feedback in the development of the technology.

Through our Torc Autonomous Advisory Council (TAAC), we are partnering with many of the leading companies in the freight industry to make sure we have the brightest and most experienced minds helping to inform our product design and account for those challenges.

What are a few things that most excite you about the automotive industry as it is today? Why?

It’s exciting that the entire industry is transforming — from internal combustion to electric or alternative fuels; from very manual systems to very connected, “smart” systems throughout the vehicle and user interfaces; and from 100% human-operated to human-operated supported by driver assistance systems and on the way to autonomous operations (i.e., SAE Level 4, high driving automation). The automotive industry has undergone more transformation in the last decade than in the previous three combined — technologies such as advanced driver assistance systems have become more widely available and are often looked at as a new standard in transportation transformation.

I also love being part of helping to advance the future of the automotive industry and drive positive change that creates benefits beyond the technology — in Torc’s case, fleet and logistics — and thereby making an even bigger positive impact on our communities.

It’s an exciting time to be in the industry. Torc is developing autonomous solutions to meet the challenges of an industry with an ever-increasing demand for goods. Torc believes its technology can immensely impact freight transportation. Additionally, it can offer a new set of possibilities for fleet managers and freight professionals across the country by increasing fleet utilization, shipping loads faster and improving driver satisfaction by allowing truckers the opportunity to work more local routes, closer to home.

What are a few things that most concern you about the automotive industry as it is today? What must be done to address these challenges?

Safety must remain a paramount topic for all in the automotive industry, especially for those of us who are creating new technologies. For autonomous trucking, safety requires going beyond just building a safe product. Collaboration with partners and stakeholders from across the ecosystem to inform the full lifecycle and customer journey is required to achieve a safe solution.

As an industry, we have come a long way over the last several decades in applying data and analytics to improve and assess the safety performance of automotive vehicles and automotive systems. Torc’s data pipeline and analytics are critical for measuring our performance to support the development and obtain the evidence to prove our capability. We use a range of predictive indicators to measure our performance and will continue to employ these techniques after deployment for safe operation and continuous improvement.

Most of the industry has implemented a Safety Management System which provides a systematic approach to how safety information is valued, shared and handled within a company. The industry needs to come together and consider ways to share best practices and learning from these programs.

As we work together as an industry towards the goal of making our roads safer, it’s crucial we don’t put the carriage before the horse. While public road testing is a necessary step in the development of autonomous technology, testing must be conducted with care, using best practices and with the recognition that it is a public road shared by all road users.

Based on your vantage point as an insider in the automotive industry, what other exciting disruptive technologies will we see in the next few years? Can you share some of the new developments that will make vehicles smarter, safer, and more sustainable?

Through our partnership with Daimler Truck, we work hand in hand in developing real-world applications to test in Daimler fleets. Some of the technology I’m most excited about is how we are leveraging our Freightliner Cascadia development trucks and prototypes. Torc develops the Automated Driving System (ADS), which includes perception and behavior algorithms, high-definition maps and the use of a proprietary localization system. Torc’s autonomous trucks are positioned and localized by our Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and real-time positioning technology developed by Torc to position the vehicle on high-definition map features. Additionally, Torc’s integrated mapping allows the vehicle to understand where it is in the world, from driving lanes to drivable surfaces.

As for the hardware used, the autonomous trucks include a sensor suite to “see” the environment. Our current system uses integrated cameras, long and short-range Lidar and long and short-range radar to allow for the system to detect its surroundings in real-time. This sensor suite utilizes the strengths of each component, provides a 3D picture of the environment, detects objects and calculates the movement of vehicles around the truck for prediction and decision-making.

In your opinion, how much longer will fossil fuel-powered cars be produced? When do you think EVs will be the majority of vehicles in use? Can you explain?

Our Daimler Truck colleagues have a great phrase for their approach to this transition: “moving at the speed of right.” Only by listening to our customers and delivering the products that they need can we help shape the future of sustainable transportation, especially in a diverse and dynamic industry like freight.

I wouldn’t want to speculate yet on when we’ll reach that tipping point to a majority of EVs or, even more exciting, autonomous EVs, but I am really looking forward to working with our partners to create a safer, more efficient freight ecosystem.

When do you think we will see fully autonomous vehicles deployed in a mainstream way? What do you think are the main barriers to reaching that stage?

We at Torc like to think the autonomous trucking landscape is a marathon, not a sprint, but do see autonomous trucks becoming mainstream by the end of the decade. Where we are today is much different than where we were in 2007 and that is largely due to the years of development that have taken place, but most importantly the system will not be released until it is inherently safe and reliable. Safety, functionality and dependability are at the forefront of all development within Torc’s autonomous fleets.

The main barrier we are seeing to reach this stage is acceptance from the public. Moving freight is a complex ecosystem and we are laser-focused on one piece of this system. We need the right people to relate with the product, see the problems that we need to solve and understand the positive impact it will have on safety, society and the industry.

How else will our driving experience be different over the next five years?

Our hope is that over the next five years, the roads will be an increasingly safer place for all road users with autonomous trucks and other vehicles equipped with automated driving systems as part of the solution and becoming more commonplace. Our goal is to design our product for ease of adoption and integration with the current on-the-road fleet operations by adding capacity in the areas with the most needs, adding a force multiplier for scaling, improving fuel economy and greater operability predictability. Although Torc is working to deploy automated driving systems, our goal is not to remove jobs from the trucking workforce. We have the ability to create new jobs over the next five years and provide drivers with the power to choose routes that are closer to their families.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Automotive Industry?”

  • Flexibility — When I was a student, autonomy didn’t really exist, but now look where we are! I certainly didn’t imagine when I was first entering the industry that I would become CEO of a company seeking to be the first to a scalable, profitable autonomous truck product!
  • Curiosity — Being open to different ideas and points of view is critical to growth. Always be willing to learn — whether about new technology, from employee perspectives, or about related industries. The rapid rate of technology development means that every industry is changing faster than in the past — the more you learn, the better equipped you will be to adapt and move forward.
  • Global perspective — The automotive industry is truly a global marketplace. Whether you are helping evaluate and source production components, developing code, or interacting with customers, you will almost certainly be working with distributed teams and across cultures.
  • People Skills — Technical expertise is obvious for this industry, but the most effective leaders I know across all industries, not just automotive, also understand how to influence, motivate and/or develop the great talent that surrounds them at every stage of their career.
  • A Strong Drive for Results — Take personal ownership in delivering on commitments to your team, your professional partners and your customers. The best leaders know the end goal and focus the passion and persistence of those around them on solutions to reach that goal.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Autonomous trucking! I’m really fortunate to already be in this industry and I really believe that the product we are building will drive the future of freight. Our autonomous trucking solution will allow the fleets to provide better services to consumers, such as faster delivery times or less expensive delivery options — first in the U.S. and then around the globe.

Hobbs Announces $1.7M in Funding for STEM Programs at Pima Community College

By Sarah Lapidus, azcentral.

Gov. Katie Hobbs announced $1.7 million in state funding was invested in Pima Community College’s workforce development in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

Part of that funding helped build the Automotive Technology and Innovation Center, a new facility that trains future automotive technicians located at the college’s downtown campus in Tucson. This year’s state budget also appropriated $2 million for the college’s operations.

Before Hobbs’ tour of the automotive facility, she spoke about Arizona’s place as the “epicenter” of emerging technologies like semiconductors, electric vehicles and aerospace, among others, and the role community colleges play in training a workforce for these jobs.

“To keep the pace, the state will need to have opportunities for postsecondary education and training that prepares Arizonans for these jobs,” Hobbs said, standing in the automotive training center, amid rows of trucks and cars, with hoods open revealing their engines.

She said this was the first time the college received state funding since 2015.

The Automotive Technology and Innovation Center is a two-story, 50,000-square-foot building that opened in 2021. It houses automotive technology programs in diesel, electric and autonomous vehicles and training for brands like Ford, Fiat-Chrysler and Subaru.

The $35 million Advanced Manufacturing facility is 100,000 square feet and houses programs in mining technology, manufacturing, metalworking, robotics, machine technology and more.

Hobbs said these training programs help meet industry demands and will help attract more companies to Arizona.

“If we have the workforce, we will continue to attract the companies,” she said.

Hobbs reiterated the importance of community colleges to Arizona’s education system and economy, noting how funding for Pima College ensures that state funding helps all corners of Arizona, not only in the capital.

“Investing those dollars here to invest in the workforce will help bring those opportunities here to Pima County and Tucson,” Hobbs said.

Programs like these at Pima Community College and other community colleges allow more people to access education and find better paying jobs, helping grow the state’s economy, she said.

“We’re committed to continuing to invest in our community colleges, which are a critical piece of Arizonans being able to access better jobs, better pay, better quality of life,” she said.

Zoox Headcount Grows as Amazon’s Self-Driving Unit Expands Testing in Vegas

By Abhirup Roy and Akash Sriram, Reuters Inc’s (AMZN.O) self-driving vehicle unit Zoox has grown its headcount by about 16% at a time when access to capital is tight and other large companies have exited the autonomous driving sector.

Amazon’s shares were 1.2% higher at $128.84 in early afternoon trading.

Based in California, Zoox, has ramped up its efforts to test its driverless robotaxi on public roads of Las Vegas since June 16, where the autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals has been driving itself around with the company’s employees.

Zoox’s headcount has grown to about 2,200, up from 1,900 at the beginning of the year, Chief Technology Officer Jesse Levinson told Reuters.

Levinson said that Zoox autonomous vehicle will not be driving on the Vegas strip yet but is being tested for handling traffic lights, intersections and drive at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

It follows approval from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles that authorizes Zoox to test drive its robotaxis on public roads in the state.

The company also intends to invest in its Vegas facilities, adding warehouse spaces to house its testing and robotaxi fleets.

“We are preparing for commercial launch and so it is important to beef up,” Levinson said, adding that the company expects to maintain a similar growth rate in headcount throughout the year.

This comes at a time when the sector has been struggling with the development of fully autonomous vehicles due to constrained access to funding and an uncertain economy.

Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) last fall announced that they would shut down their Argo AI self-driving unit and focus on driver-assistance technology that provided more immediate returns.

Alphabet’s (GOOGL.O) self-driving technology project Waymo laid off 137 employees in a second round of job cuts this year.

Autonomous Vehicle Transit Pilot in Rural Minnesota to Expand with $9.3M Federal Grant

By Andy Castillo, American City & County

Ten months into its 18-month-long pilot initiative, an autonomous vehicle transit program in rural Minnesota, goMARTI (Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative), has received a $9.3 million federal technology grant to expand into Grand Rapids, Minn.

Since launching with a fleet of five self-driving vehicles in September (three of which have ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps), goMARTI has provided on-demand service to about 70 pick-up and drop-off points in a 16.5 square-mile area. The expansion will add community-requested stops to the east and south of the current area, including Minnesota North College Itasca, Second Harvest North Central Food Bank and Walmart.

“Connecting residents with these rural community destinations will allow for equitable access to critical services in the region through a convenient and reliable shared mobility option. We are excited about continuing the state’s interagency collaboration between the Iron Range and MnDOT in the state’s transition to shared, electric and automated transportation,” said Ida Rukavina, commissioner of Minnessota’s Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation board in a statement. With the federal Advanced Transportation Technology and Innovation Program grant and additional “EV infrastructure planning underway, northeastern Minnesota is well positioned to help create a better future for rural transportation.”

Along with the added stops, administrators are planning to use the funding to add another autonomous vehicle to the fleet along with three fully electric, non-autonomous vehicles that will serve the Grand Rapids area and the nearby communities of Cohasset and La Prairie, Minn.

While initially launched to help people in rural Minnessota get to and from jobs, medical and other appointments, the expansion will reach a new population.

“Expanding goMARTI to Minnesota North College Itasca is a big win for our current and prospective students,” said Dr. Michael Raich, president of Minnesota North College in the statement. “Reliable transportation is a barrier for many people, and this free and convenient shuttle option will make college much more accessible to those who don’t live on or near campus. This project also presents an opportunity for our college to prepare our future workforce by exposing students to emerging technologies and careers in the transportation industry.”

The grant will also be used to integrate goMARTI into the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) trip planning platform, the Transit App, which is currently being used in southern Minnesota. Funding will also support continued research from the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies and workforce development efforts with Minnesota North College. Minnesota North College will be developing curriculum to leverage the project creating student experience opportunities, new curriculum opportunities and career pathways in new technology.