Hi Reddit, this is Chris Urmson! I’m the founder of Aurora – we’re building self-driving technology to autonomously move people and goods throughout the world safely and efficiently.

I’m joined by Reid Hoffman, who is not only the founder of LinkedIn, but also the co-founder of Reinvent Technology Partners – the company we’re merging with as we look to go public via SPAC before the end of the year.

Ask us anything about developing self-driving technology, safely operating on public roads, and building companies and businesses that scale.

Here’s our proof: https://twitter.com/chris_urmson/status/1440137728666992653?s=20

EDIT: Hey folks, thank you all for giving us some of your time this afternoon. We’re signing off for now, but had a great time and look forward to our next AMA! So long, and thanks for all the fish.

To learn more about Aurora, visit us at www.aurora.tech.

Comments: 299 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

stoovdub874 karma

As a former employee I know firsthand that enough sexism, discrimination, and retaliation run rampant in Aurora to force employees to quit. It’s been repeatedly reported and ignored by multiple parties including management and HR. What are you doing to investigate and fix the detrimental culture you’ve created?

Chris_Urmson-287 karma

I’m sorry you had this experience. This isn’t the culture we want to build at Aurora. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, and, because you worked at Aurora, you know my contact info. I encourage you to reach out to me directly to ensure this is addressed.

Marconius51 karma

I'm fully blind and work in the TNC space helping to keep transportation apps accessible for people with disabilities. Are you considering accessibility of your self-driving project from the start? Are you working with consumer groups like the National Federation of the Blind and others to keep disabled people in the loop as part of your design and scaling process? Remediating for accessibility after you've designed, engineered and launched a project is extremely wasteful and expensive, and blind people are one of the strongest advocates for mobility and transportation independence, so I really hope that is considered with what you are developing.

Chris_Urmson13 karma

Chris: Really appreciate the question. When we think about why we do what we do one of our motivating factors is really to expand accessibility for those who don’t find that the current transportation system works for them. We actively solicit feedback and engage in conversations with disability groups and other industry partners.

We haven’t yet deeply engaged with the NFB at Aurora, though I did engage with several accessibility groups, including NFB, at my previous job. For the first few years of Aurora, we’ve been focused on building the core technology. Our first product will be in trucking, but as we turn our attention to our second product in ride-hailing, we’ll be sure to engage these groups. As your point about designing for (rather than remediating) is spot on.

Related: We also engage more broadly in regards to educating public groups who will benefit from this tech – for example, groups like AARP, which we hosted for a visit to our office in Pittsburgh.

CapNMcKickAss29 karma

In past interviews you've identified FMCW lidar and some modern machine learning techniques as key enablers for highway operation of heavy trucks in autonomy.

Are there other not-yet-mature technologies that you imagine will enable future step changes in AV capability? (smart infrastructure, etc)

Chris_Urmson6 karma

Chris: We are really excited about FMCW, and the cool ML stuff we’re doing. Simulation is another area where we’ve been investing heavily at Aurora, and we think is a key to not just building the system, but also validating it. We can model light transport to allow us to accurately model our sensors, which allows us to test against things that are rare to see in the world, and we use procedural generation to create massive numbers of variations of scenarios that are interesting or challenging, to test the bounds of our solutions. You can read more here.

Intrepid-Plankton28 karma

How does aurora approach the so-called "trolley problem"? If the company has made an ethical decision in response, is there corresponding logic in the source code? Is it written into operator playbooks? Will vehicle passengers be aware of how the vehicle has been trained to respond in such a scenario?

Chris_Urmson45 karma

Reid: I wrote my masters thesis at Oxford on philosophical thought experiments. The method can lead to lots of philosophical mistakes. Most centrally: are those two options really the only 2 options? Is there another 3rd option? Here, the key is to develop autonomous driving to be so much safer than human driving that even when an AV encounters difficult choices on A vs. B (which human beings have to do as well), that we are far better off with autonomous drivers on the road. It’s hard to give good depth to this answer, because philosophers have literally written tomes on trolley problem variations.

Chris: So the trolley problem is a philosophical question… Philosophers have wrestled with this problem for centuries. It's really, what do we as a society together believe is the right thing to do? The good thing is that self-driving cars should be and will be much more alert. They're going to be better defensive drivers, so it should rarely happen. I don't know if in your lifetime you've ever had to pick between crashing into one thing or another. I haven’t. But the promise of self driving and their safety benefits is incredible. And something that motivates me to keep working on it.

Gemmabeta20 karma

What are you guys doing different from every other self-driving tech company out there?

Chris_Urmson5 karma

Chris: There are a few things I would call out:

We’re approaching the problem with the mindset of building an integrated system that works across different vehicle types. This common core platform uses the same hardware and software on big class 8 trucks as it does on passenger vehicles. This means we get to leverage lessons learned from each market in the other, and we can tackle the whole transportation market.

If you look across the four quadrants of vehicle manufacturer and then network user, we're partnered with the number one carrier in the US in FedEx. We're partnered with the number one ride hailing platform on the planet with Uber. We partnered with the number one global vehicle OEM on the planet with Toyota. And we're partnered with two of the top three North American OEM's in trucking. So, objectively, that is about as strong a set of partnerships as you could have to bring this technology to market.

We don’t just talk about safety, we live it and prioritize it. It’s at the core of who we are and what we do. We shared our Safety Case Framework – the first public one to address both trucking and passenger mobility. We’re also the first company implementing a safety management system (SMS). These are both critical components for any company looking to operate without a safety driver.

And of course, we’re doing a lot of really cool things in our tech stack. Our Virtual Testing Suite, our sensor-suite (which includes FMCW lidar), and our approach to HD mapping.

Reid: This team is the most experienced in the industry, and have been working on all manner of self-driving technology for decades. That kind of background in a growing industry like AVs isn’t just invaluable, it’s unmatched.

pithecium15 karma

Waymo has a working driver based on HD maps, but seems to be having trouble scaling. Tesla wants to make HD maps unnecessary, but hasn't yet proven that it can achieve self-driving that way.

I saw on your website that you're using an HD map approach, the "Aurora Atlas." How do you plan to solve the scaling issue with HD maps?

Chris_Urmson14 karma

Chris: We actually have a great blog post that talks about our approach to building our HD maps, Aurora Atlas.

In short, our approach with the Aurora Atlas is to address exactly this scaling problem. We do this by sharding our maps, and emphasizing local consistency over global accuracy. This makes our maps much more maintainable. We leverage the same vehicles that are being driven by the Aurora Driver to gather the data to update the map. This means that as we go to production, we will be able to efficiently gather the data we need, and to keep the map accurate and up-to-date in near real-time.

hurshy23814 karma

What do you see as the time frame before self-driving vehicles become the norm?

Chris_Urmson14 karma

Chris: Hey it’s Chris. We’ve seen incredible progress in the development of self-driving technology. Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is going to take time -- I think you’ll see autonomous trucks on the road in the next couple of years. In fact, at Aurora we have self-driving trucks on the road in Texas and just last week we started autonomously hauling freight for FedEx in Texas. After we bring our freight product to market you’ll see our autonomous passenger vehicles on ride-hailing networks. Right now you can ride in an autonomous vehicle in Phoenix… and you’ll see more vehicles in more cities over the coming years. So, self-driving vehicles are here. It’s just going to take some time for them to be so common you see them in every city or every highway.

As we have more autonomous vehicles on the road, I hope they can become the norm. Their benefits are profound! Every incremental step we can take towards making our roads more safe is a win.

Reid: Hey, Reid here. Also, Chris is his generally understated self. In addition to the great progress at Aurora, he is also one of the few people in the world who has already made autonomy work, when he was leading the project at Google.

cesnyah9 karma

(1) what do you think of truck platooning (human driver followed by multiple tracking self-driving trucks) as a faster go-to market strategy?

(2) what do you look for in an Aurora employee?

Chris_Urmson3 karma

Chris: Well, first off, I wouldn’t be a good CEO if I didn’t share that we are hiring. We are: https://aurora.tech/careers

We want people who want to make self-driving vehicles a reality. They need to be excited about our mission. We want people who are experts in their field, but who have the humility to understand that delivering the Aurora driver will require them to work well with others, it’s why “No Jerks” is one of our core values. For example, our vehicle operators work closely with our perception and simulation teams on our Virtual Testing Suite, our hardware and design teams worked together to deliver FirstLight Lidar, and our safety team partners closely with everyone across Aurora to thread safety into everything we do.

Reid: This team is easily one of the most experienced and technically renowned in autonomous vehicles, and in my opinion, a pioneering team who will bring autonomous vehicles to the mass market. Chris hates when I say this, but he could be considered as the Henry Ford of autonomous vehicles. Drew has run a research lab at Carnegie Mellon focused on the intersection of ML and robotics for over a decade and led perception and overall autonomy architecture for Uber’s self driving vehicle efforts. And Sterling led Tesla’s Model X program to its launch in 2015, then led the team that delivered Autopilot. Between these three co-founders and the team they have recruited in the past five years, they are collectively the best and brightest thinkers and builders in robotics, automation and automotive products.

loccopocco7 karma

Do you use simulation data for teaching algorithms about road conditions? Does such an approach scale to other cities too?

Chris_Urmson7 karma

Chris: Yes, and yes. Simulation is incredibly important to what we do. We put an emphasis on our Virtual Testing Suite, which helps us develop faster and more efficiently without relying on on-road miles only. With simulation, we are driving the equivalent of more than 22 million simulated miles every day, on average, and expect to have driven the on-road equivalent of over 9 billion miles by EOY.

It does help us when it comes to road conditions, and it does allow us to scale – in fact we can scale much more quickly than if we only used on-road miles. Our cloud simulator can spin up 50,000 virtual vehicles, and our procedural generation tools allow us to generate broad variations of important scenarios.

For us, the specifics of the given city are less relevant than the road conditions that we are testing, which we expect to generalize.

Reid: This is one of the key technological advantages that Aurora has by building a new platform from ground up, for the second time.

investinfuture787 karma

If all cars were autonomous, would we all be safer? Cars communicating to each other = no road rage or tailgating. Is this naive?

Chris_Urmson6 karma

Reid: Not naive at all! In fact, I actually wrote about this theory back in 2015 in my essay “Driving in the Networked Age”. In that post, I said that in a world where all vehicles are networked and autonomous, every car on the road will benefit from what every other car has learned. Autonomous vehicles will also be able to share information with each other better than human drivers can, in both real-time situations and over time. Driving will become a networked activity, with tighter feedback loops and a much greater ability to aggregate, analyze, and redistribute knowledge. Plus, autonomous cars don’t have road rage, don’t drive drunk! Driving will thus become safer and highly collaborative, with greater cooperation leading to greater efficiency.

Chris: Yes, the more automated vehicles we have on the road, the safer our roadways will be. Driving will be incrementally more predictable, and self-driving systems, like the Aurora Driver, won’t get distracted, or drive based on their ego. In the long term, communication between cars will be valuable, but as of now, there aren’t enough V2V systems on the road for it to drive a lot of safety benefits.

lucie_goosie5 karma

Now that driving as an autonomous application is past the early hiccups, what other applications of autonomy are you excited to invest in?

Chris_Urmson6 karma

Chris: I appreciate your optimism, but I think we’ve still got many years of work in front of us advancing the technology and bringing it to market at scale. Much like when Henry Ford launched the Model T, it wasn’t the end of Ford’s development, it was very much just the beginning. We’re working, with our partners, to have an impact on an industry that is measured in trillions of dollars (just in the US) and so we expect to be pretty busy with trucks and cars for the foreseeable future!

Reid: While there are many exciting opportunities for autonomy (different vehicles, Joby, etc), Chris is exactly right that the truck and car opportunities are so massive and beneficial that there will be lots of great work here for years.

Darlington284 karma

Who makes the better burger, 5 Guys, in n out, or Whataburger?

Chris_Urmson5 karma

Reid: I’m from California, so I have to vote In-n-Out. (Animal style of course.)

Chris: Well, our trucks are on the roads in Texas and we just hosted our Investor & Analysts Days there, so I feel like I need to go with Texas BBQ!

SirPounceTheThird4 karma

Chris: You have undoubtedly played a massive role in the history of self-driving cars. In the inevitable "The Right Stuff"-esque film chronicling this adventure, who do you want to portray you?

Chris_Urmson10 karma

Chris: Matt Damon, though my wife would prefer Ewan McGregor.

Reid: There are so many options that I might also suggest…

dragon2knight4 karma

These are serious questions, not intended to throw hate at all as I'm sure there is a place for this type of tech somewhere.

Why do you think that self driving cars are a necessity on American roads? Do you truly intend for this tech to replace people, many of which have been driving for decades? And how do you intend to make this work when people are still out there driving as they have always been for over 100 years, with reflexes and plain simple common sense(for the most part) that have evolved over this same time frame? Do you honestly think this co-existence can happen without some major issues? Thank you for at least reading this.....

Chris_Urmson10 karma

Reid: I wrote about this a few years back for Time Magazine. In the past, when major technology shifts occurred, the new machines made many jobs obsolete—but they created even more new ones. In at least some cases that’s happening now too. The innovation and adaptability that have always made us human are still there too. We have the opportunity to reinvent work again with technologies like robots, self-driving vehicles, etc — and forge a new set of jobs through entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

I think that autonomous vehicles are a near certainty – and depending on the pacing and timing of that, that will cause kind of a mini “agrarian to industrial revolution” that will cause people who are currently in a certain set of jobs to feel displaced. As a society, we need to help that, we need to make sure they have safety nets, and that these people have the best possible paths to other kinds of jobs. But on the other hand, I think technology like autonomy will create a whole bunch of new jobs.

And I believe autonomy is essential because of the potential to save lives, to facilitate efficiency of road use (climate impact mitigation, make better use of existing infrastructure vs needing to build lots more, reduce gridlock), and to create significant economic productivity.

Chris: I think the status quo is not really acceptable. It’s easy to forget that in the US 40k people die every year in traffic accidents (1.25m globally). It’s easy to forget that in the US alone, we’re short 60k truck drivers, and expect to be short 160k by the end of the decade. We forget that transportation is a limit on economic opportunity and is the second or third largest expense in people’s life. I think self-driving technology is really the only path to helping address these challenges. It’s definitely not easy, and the goal is not to replace people. Initially we expect self-driving vehicles to operate alongside human drivers.

As we’ve spent more time talking to Carriers and private fleet operators, what I hear consistently is that they don’t want to replace the human drivers they have, they just can’t get enough drivers to scale and operate their businesses. Job stability is important. But we’re also seeing another reality emerge, which is that the industry is having a hard time retaining drivers. In fact, among large truck companies, annual turnover rates for long-haul drivers are over 90%. For smaller companies, things aren’t much better at 72% annual turnover.

We’re optimistic about the economic impacts AVs will have and encouraged by recent research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which shows the industry will create jobs and spur billions in U.S. economic growth.

There’s no doubt that some people will lose their jobs, as automated vehicles become more common, and as a society, we need to grapple with this, and help these people transition to new jobs - the broad benefit to society of this technology is too large for us to not embrace it.

muhleeee5 karma

sity on American roads? Do you truly intend for this tech to replace people, many of which have been driving for decades? And how do you intend to make this work when people are still out there driving as they have always been for over 100 years, with reflexes and plain simple common sense(for the most part) that have evolved over this same time frame? Do you honestly think this co-existence can happen without some major issues? Thank you for at least reading this

this is like saying, we have traveled by rowing boats for thousands of years, why do you think motorboats or even automated boats/shuttles are a necessity

dragon2knight-4 karma

Boats and cars are entirely different things, from where they work to who works them. Cars/trucks are by their very nature vehicles driven and controlled by humans who are forced to follow certain rules in order to drive safely on roads not exactly in optimal condition to allow for the safest travel sometimes. And said humans do not always follow said rules...actually most simply ignore them. Can you make tech that can replicate this behavior? Tech has it's place, and I'm sure this will work eventually, but I for one would not like to look out my window doing 70 mph or faster, and see no one driving the car next to, in front of, or behind me. This is not natural and it WILL cause issues. I am not saying in any way shape or form that this is a bad idea, it's just going to be a VERY bumpy road, with lots of accidents (some fatal of course) getting to the end zone here and I'm of a majority who think this is too soon to do this. We simply aren't ready for it. There are already idiots who are abusing the tech that's already here (sitting in the back seat whilst their cars drive themselves......can you get any more idiotic??) and if you think it's going to get any better in the short run, well you're just deluding yourself. Here's to hoping that the creators of the next generation of this tech truly understand that this isn't ready for prime time and they work really hard to make sure both the auto makers and more importantly the general public are ready for this.

EDIT: added some more to my response.

Chris_Urmson4 karma

Chris: I think your thoughts here are representative of the majority of the US public. There are regular polls that show something like 60% of Americans aren't ready to ride a self-driving vehicle. The fascinating thing is that this means 40%, or something like 120 million Americans are. My experience has been that even the most anxious people given the opportunity to experience the technology first hand, quickly realize the value.

Your point about people misusing the technology has shaped the way we are developing it at Aurora. Instead of taking a path through driver assistance, where people have to monitor and pay attention while the car is driving well most of the time, but can fail fatally every once in a while (which is a *very* difficult human factors problem). We are taking the path of aiming straight for L4, where the autonomy system is handling the whole driving task, even if in a limited circumstance, and then growing out from that, avoiding the real challenges associated with human attention.

Reid: Personally, I think that people tend to resist something new until they see other people they know and trust experience it safely. This ranges everything from the earliest cars -- where they were worried relative to horse and buggies -- to airplanes and others. Once people see the magic, the utility, and (key) the safety -- then they can adopt quickly.

Chris_Urmson-5 karma

Chris & Reid: Hey folks, thank you all for giving us some of your time this afternoon. We’re signing off for now, but had a great time and look forward to our next AMA! So long, and thanks for all the fish.

To learn more about Aurora, visit us at www.aurora.tech, or on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.