Future of Travel

Aurora Innovation’s chief safety officer on AV setbacks and ensuring safety

The former NHTSA official says the differentiating factor for Aurora is “being transparent, responsible, trustworthy.”
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Nat Beuse

· 6 min read

Tech Brew caught up with one of the AV 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, the auto industry’s top regulator, for nearly 20 years before jumping into the private sector.

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

The robotaxi sector in particular has faced some setbacks and quite a lot of scrutiny recently, largely because of Cruise’s issues in San Francisco. Aurora is playing in a different space, but what effect do these types of incidents have on Aurora and the AV sector as a whole?

I take the macro view: Clearly, when we have instances like this, it has an impact on the rest of the industry. From our perspective, we continue to differentiate ourselves as being transparent, responsible, trustworthy…I think that the job isn’t done yet, though…While I can’t speak for what Cruise needs to do to fix whatever they have going on over there, but from us, we remain unchanged and unwavering in the way we’re approaching it because we fundamentally believe the way we’ve been doing it is the right way.

We have to continue to share our safety narrative and safety story. And it’s not just a story without any substance. There actually has to be some substance behind what we’re saying. I think another big area…is standards…A few years ago, there were no industry best practices or standards around self-driving, and now we have north of a dozen or so. It’s great progress. I think it shows that while we have some challenges, we continue to address those challenges and move ahead.

And from Aurora’s standpoint, we continue to work to try to bring the industry along as best we can from our area of expertise and the things we’re focused on. In the trucking space, for example, when you look at some of the items that we’re working on with other companies in the space…we incorporate not just what we were doing on trucking but also brought along the light-vehicle people, and that ended up as a nice best practice that encompasses the entire AV industry.

How do you think the AV sector, regulators, and other stakeholders need to go about preparing the public for a reality in which people are driving on the highway alongside an autonomous truck?

This is still an area that I think, as an industry, we need to do more on…We need to find a way to meet people where they are, and I think that involves a lot of the work that Aurora, for example, does on the ground where we’re in Texas, we’ve already announced that as our launch lane, we’re constantly meeting with Texas state officials…about how they can educate the public better so that this isn’t Aurora doing this on its own, but it’s Aurora collaborating with government officials to say, “OK, we all have the same desires to see this technology rolled out in a responsible way. What are the things we need to do to bring the public along?” And I think even more so, around when things happen, that there’s accountability in the system and the public safety is safeguarded. That’s gotta be paramount.

What is your perspective on the uptick in traffic fatalities and reckless driving in the US in the last few years and how self-driving technology can play a role in mitigating some of these things?

It’s absolutely atrocious. The fact that we are sitting here today with the safest vehicles ever—literally ever—and still having this tremendous fatality toll on our highways and not even talking about things that happen to people that sometimes are permanent, whether mental or physical, and that’s something we don’t even have a good way to track…It is a public health crisis.

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For a long time, perhaps the public has been desensitized to it because it happens all over and maybe not in your neighborhood…When I think about the promise that Aurora’s bringing to the table, yes it is some of the easy things about, we won’t drive distracted, we won’t drive drunk, all those things that we can all point to…The Aurora Driver won’t do those things, and we’ll definitely see some huge benefits from that as a society.

But there’s also other tools and other things that need to be on the table. We need to make sure the infrastructure, for example, is up-kept and signs aren’t missing. That affects us, and that affects human drivers, too. I like to think of it as maybe not equal, but all necessary.

I certainly am a strong believer that self-driving is a tool that should be on the table, should be used to help mitigate this atrocious death toll that we have here in the United States. But it’s also not the only thing there. Anything that can make driving better, we’re good on that. I think it’s super important that we don’t say, “It’s this or nothing.”

How do you go about setting the internal culture with the expectation that safety is a priority?

It starts at the top. We have a leader in [CEO] Chris Urmson that from Day One of founding this company, he has put safety first. And then the leadership that surrounds him adopts that same mindset. But that’s not sufficient. So one of the things that my team does, for example, is reiterate that message through the company and then we do a couple things: We have policies around it. We measure the effectiveness of those policies, and we measure employee sentiment. So there’s all these things that we do to give a signal on, what is the company culture like around safety…I’m extremely proud of the culture we’ve built here because we have a couple things:

One is we have a program where any employee can ground a fleet, no questions asked. They can say, “Hey, I feel like the fleet shouldn’t run today,” and we have a process to make sure that gets adjudicated. And then we also have a very robust safety concern process where anybody can submit a safety concern without fear of retaliation. Those safety concerns are reviewed and adjudicated…We put metrics around it. If you don’t measure it, you don’t actually know if it’s effective.

For us, those are just some examples of how we’ve continued to build and reinforce the safety culture at Aurora to ensure that employees feel like there is an outlet for their concerns, and that these concerns are actually addressed. Any employee can go find any safety concern that my team has looked at in the past two years. It’s on a website internally that they can go find…We’re held accountable to the process that we have stood up.

Anything to add?

2024 is going to be the year of the driverless truck. I think Aurora is well-positioned to change the world in a very dramatic way given the partnerships that we’ve stood up, the collaborations that we have, our approach to safety…and I think that we might look back on 2024 and even all the stuff that has happened with Cruise in ’23 that we were able to make forward progress on this technology and be deliberate about how we get there.

It is different than any other thing we’ve done as a country because this technology is being tested every day on public roads, and so we understand our responsibility in all of that at Aurora.

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.