Replacing human-driven cars with fully autonomous vehicles will take 30 years or more, Aurora CEO Chris Urmson says — but there are some important things we should keep in mind in the intervening decades.
On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Urmson warned that one of the dangers for early self-driving-car users will be “becoming falsely comfortable with the safety of it.” This is especially true as an intermediary form of the technology, assisted driving, becomes more common.
“Maybe it works perfectly every day for a month,” he said. “The next day, it may not work. But their experience now is, ‘this works.’ So, they’re not prepared to take over. Their ability to save it and monitor it decays with time. But when we think about the rate at which bad things happen, they’re very low.”
“In America, somebody dies in a car accident about 1.15 times per 100 million miles,” Urmson added. “That’s like 10,000 years of an average person’s driving. Let’s say the technology is pretty good but not that good, someone dies once every 50 million miles, we’re going to have twice as many accidents and fatalities on the road, on average. But for any one individual, they could go a lifetime, many lifetimes, before they would ever see that.”
Urmson, formerly the CTO of Google’s self-driving-car initiative Waymo, started Aurora with alumni of Tesla and Uber’s similar efforts. The company’s goal is to partner with both automotive companies and ride-hailing companies to build software and advise on what hardware is needed to make self-driving cars a reality.
On the new podcast, he said Detroit and Silicon Valley have one big thing in common: A lack of respect for one another.
“It’s very easy for Silicon Valley to look at the car companies and say, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re so slow, we’re going to disrupt them,’” he said. “And then it’s very easy for the car companies to say, ‘Oh my goodness, look at the Silicon Valley guys. They’re so seat-of-the-pants, how could they actually do anything big and complicated?’ Obviously, both of those statements are completely false.”
Aurora hopes, then, to find a place for itself that recognizes both the power of software engineering and the deep decades of knowledge of automobile manufacturers. And although the company wants to get safe self-driving cars on the road as soon as possible, Urmson said it’s also important to acknowledge the progress still needed.
“It’s humbling, as someone working in this space, how easy some of these tasks are for humans to do, and how hard they are to actually get software and technology to solve,” he said.
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