The Road Ahead for Autonomous Vehicles: Aurora CEO Chris Urmson on the Future of Cars and Trucks

By Todd Bishop, GeekWire

Fully autonomous vehicles are closer to commonplace than you might expect, as cars and big rigs gain the ability to operate safely on our streets and highways.

As one of the pioneers in the field, Chris Urmson has been there almost from the beginning, competing in the landmark DARPA Grand Challenge before leading Google’s self-driving car initiative. Now he’s following through on the vision as CEO of Aurora, which is developing self-driving technology for car and truck makers.

On this episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we’re playing highlights from our conversation with Urmson at the recent GeekWire Summit.

Listen below, or subscribe in any podcast app, and keep reading for excerpts. 

Aurora’s approach: We founded Aurora about six years ago with the mission to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly and broadly. We’re building the driver technology. We don’t want to build trucks or cars. There’s people who do that really well. We don’t want to build Uber or FedEx or any of the carriers. We want to build the driving technology to power those businesses.

Underlying technology: The driver we’ve built uses a combination of sensors: LIDAR, radar, cameras, our special high-definition maps. We’ve got our proprietary FirstLight LIDAR, which allows us to see further than others can. And we have a lot of computing onboard. It’s this common architecture, common hardware and software that runs everything from the Toyota Sienna through vehicles from PACCAR and Volvo.

Current state of operations: Today we have trucks on the road in Texas pulling loads for customers every day, with people on board, with operators on board. … The vast majority of the time, it’s driving itself. And it’s doing this on the freeway. And it is a very smooth, capable driver at this point. It does the things that you’d want other drivers to do. So if it sees vehicles trying to merge … it will make space and move over. When it sees a vehicle stuck on the side of the road, it’ll slow down, it’ll make space, and do all the things that a good conscientious driver would do.

Why start with big rigs? For a bunch of reasons:

  • There’s just an incredible need for this technology in the U.S. We’re short 80,000 drivers today; we expect to be short 160,000 drivers by the end of the decade. It is one of the contributing factors to the supply chain challenge.
  • Safety is profoundly important. There are about a half-million heavy truck accidents per year. That’s something we can do something about.
  • As a business, the economic opportunity is even better. Trucking today in the U.S. is about a $700 billion industry; ride-hailing is about a $35 billion industry. And so from an addressable market, it’s profound.
  • When we look at the opportunity to build the business and scale it, unit economics are stronger. Said simply, we pay truck drivers three times as much as we pay ride-hailing drivers. And so if you think about introducing a technology, that makes it easier to start to scale the business and then move into other spaces.
  • Finally, from a technology point of view, we expect to be able to scale more rapidly. If you think about what a mile of freeway in Texas looks like, versus a mile of freeway in Minnesota, versus a mile of freeway in California, they’re all basically the same. Whereas, with an intersection in San Francisco, you go five blocks away, and it’s different people, different behavior, different geometry.

What do you say to people who are concerned about safety? First, this is a new technology. It is very rational and reasonable to have concerns and questions and really want to understand it better. That’s perfectly normal and healthy.

Safety is core to the DNA of the company. It’s why we’re as transparent as we are about how we do safety at the company. We’ve shared our framework for how we’re going to convince ourselves and others that the vehicle is safe.

The technology is magical in some ways. It can look in all directions at once. And it doesn’t have the human response of foveation that happens. … There’s an incredible opportunity here for safety.

If you had the option to drive I-5 from the Bay Area to Seattle yourself or have the Aurora Driver drive, which would you choose, safety-wise?

We’re not quite there yet with the Aurora Driver. But we are making really good progress. There’s a lot of the time where I would certainly trust it. Where we’re at with the Aurora Driver is driving up reliability … but we haven’t quite finished yet. If we had, we would be operating without drivers today.

What’s next: We are working to be feature complete at the end of Q1. At that point, the Aurora Driver does everything it’ll need to be part of a product out in the world. But it doesn’t yet do it quite well enough. We’re working towards the end of next year to be ready.