Future of Travel

Aurora exec Nat Beuse explains why 2024 stands to be a ‘big year’ in AVs

The autonomous-trucking company’s chief safety officer, a former NHTSA official, spoke to Tech Brew about the regulatory landscape.
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Nat Beuse

7 min read

It’s shaping up to be the year of the driverless truck, with several autonomous-vehicle (AV) tech companies slated to take the major step of removing human drivers from the cabin.

Among them is Pittsburgh-based Aurora Innovation, which has emerged as a leader in a consolidated field of competitors in the autonomous-trucking sector. The startup was founded in 2017 and went public via a SPAC in 2021; it now has a market cap of more than $4.5 billion.

Aurora is preparing to start running driverless routes by the end of 2024, bolstered by $820 million in funding it raised last year, according to PitchBook data. Some of its competitors, including Kodiak Robotics, are also planning to ditch human drivers this year.

Such steps would mark major milestones in a sector that has experienced a slew of setbacks in recent months, particularly in the robotaxi space. Negative attention and regulatory scrutiny have mounted around the deployment of self-driving cars following a pedestrian crash involving a Cruise robotaxi in San Francisco.

Cruise recently released third-party findings that detailed technical failures that contributed to the incident. The GM-backed startup also revealed that it’s being investigated by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The fallout has underscored the challenges of safely scaling up AV technology. So it was an opportune time for Tech Brew to catch up with one of the industry’s leading safety experts: Nat Beuse, who stepped into the role of Aurora’s chief safety officer last year. Beuse served in leadership roles at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the auto industry’s top regulator, for nearly 20 years before jumping to the private sector.

This conversation, the first of two parts, has been edited for length and clarity.

2024 looks like it’s going to be a really big year for the self-driving sector overall. What’s in store for you guys?

2024 is a big year for us…We’ve had an industry that has naturally gone through some consolidation, which presents opportunities for those of us that have a clear line of sight of what success looks like. When you look at the trucking space in particular, there’s been a ton of activity on the Aurora side. Whether it’s our deal that we signed with Continental, an industry-leading approach where we are putting the partnerships in place to actually do things at scale. You can’t put computers in thousands of trucks without a Tier 1 supplier.

You see us doing the same thing on what we would call the platform side, the vehicle itself. Having strong partnerships with Volvo and PACCAR…The other big piece is laying the foundations with the people who will use these products. In layman’s terms, we’ll call them the big logistics shippers. We have those partnerships as well. So all these pieces are lining up for us.

Last year was a big one for us where we said that we were feature-complete, which means we have all the features necessary to do our route. And then, at the end of this year, it will be our sign to say that we are ready to commercially launch with the Aurora Driver…These are big things for us, and, I think, big things for the industry as a whole. Because when I look at what Aurora’s doing, you can see us moving not at a pace that’s like, ‘This is a cool science project.’ You actually see us moving at a pace that is building a commercial business at scale from the beginning.

How would you characterize the regulatory environment that the sector is operating in, and how does that inform Aurora’s approach to deploying?

For us, it’s irrespective of the regulatory environment. Our approach has always been to be transparent and trustworthy with regulators and the general public. If you look at the things we’ve put out there on safety, they tend to be, we’re going to tell you what we’re going to do, and then we do them.

A good point is our Safety Case Framework. So we are still the only company that put theirs out there before we go driverless, and we are methodically sharing our progress with the public, again, before [we go driverless]...so that there’s a high level of accountability there for us.

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When I take a step back and [look] at what’s happening in the regulatory space, there’s actually quite a bit. If you look at California, for example, they’re starting their regulatory process for commercial trucks, which we were happy to see, and are definitely participating in their public meetings and contributing there in a way that I think we’re uniquely positioned to be….And then, when I think about what’s happening at the federal level, there’s lots of things happening. [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] just stood up a new federal advisory committee. I’m on there, and it’s very rare company; there’s something like only 38 people on that…And then you look at what’s happening in the individual agencies within the Department of Transportation, and they all have some sort of activity happening around automated vehicles.

What we would like to see is a continual process around the feds doing their part and doing rulemakings to really solidify what each of those agencies is going to do. And then the state folks taking an approach of balancing what their unique responsibilities are versus what the feds are better positioned to do.

Following some of the issues that have happened in San Francisco, there have been calls for more local control over the regulations that govern the sector. What is your perspective on the appropriate regulatory framework or entity to set these standards for the industry?

Everybody has a role here: The feds are very good at overseeing large companies, overseeing their safety programs, whether that be how things are made and put on our public streets versus on the commercial side, how they’re being operated. And then there’s been a long partnership for a long time there with states and with localities. And I think we need to sometimes remind ourselves about the different expertise that we bring to the table while also embracing these new technologies that are coming into the market.

There’s clearly more work to be done there, but I just want to be super clear: It’s not like there’s this huge regulatory gap where anybody can do what they want; that there is a framework that exists today. We’ve seen NHTSA and the department actually use that power very forcefully. We’ve seen California use its power. So, yes, while there’s still some more learnings and tweaking we can do—this is a long journey—we need to make it clear to the public that this isn’t the Wild, Wild West. Sometimes this narrative comes out that it’s the Wild, Wild West, anybody can do what they want. That’s categorically not true. You cannot do that in the United States, and I think the overall track record embodies that system at work.

One of the big promises of autonomy is that it will make driving safer. But…the third-party report on the Cruise incident in San Francisco determined that a human driver would have reacted faster than the self-driving car did in that situation. What can we draw from that, and at this point in time, how would you characterize the safety of self-driving technology compared to human drivers?

This is an engineering problem at its heart. So we are going through the work to identify the engineering effort, the policies, the operational activities we must do, how all those fit together to put a driverless product on the road and operations. We believe that that is the only way to do this in a safe way, and we’ve been saying that for a while. Again, we put our framework out there for other people to copy at will; no pride of ownership. I think you’ll hear me say things like, “I don’t think that companies should be competing on safety.”…And while I haven’t fully made my way through all the third-party review stuff, I will say that as an industry, it’s important that we learn what we can from any of these instances. So the fact that they put that full report out, I’m sure there’s interesting tidbits in there that any company can take away from to ensure at least the general circumstances around it don’t happen again…It really comes back to, have you done all the work to prove that this engineering product that you made is safe?

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.