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Business as Usual: Aurora CEO and Co-Founder

Business as Usual

Today on Business as Usual, we are welcoming a true pioneer of the autonomous vehicle industry -- Chris Urmson, Co-Founder and CEO of Aurora!

Chris co-founded Aurora in 2017 to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly. Chris has been instrumental in pioneering and advancing the development of self-driving vehicles since the early 2000s.

While earning his PhD in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Urmson’s technical leadership was critical in the development of his team’s robotic vehicles that participated in the DARPA Grand Challenges. He was one of the original leaders of Google’s self-driving car project, which later spun off into Waymo in 2016.

On the tail of announcing new office space in the Strip District, Chris will discuss Aurora's commitment and investment in Pittsburgh to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly and broadly.

 

Transcription: 

So Good afternoon, and welcome to today's session of business as usual. And this is Audrey Russo, President CEO, the Pittsburgh Tech Council. And I'm also joined today and always with Jonathan kersting. He's a co host, he also runs tech, five radio. He's all things media and marketing. So Huntington bank has been a partner right from the onset want to give a shout out to them and acknowledge their long friendship and belief in us. And they joined us right at the beginning of COVID. If you don't know them, they actually have been pivotal and very instrumental during the onset of the pandemic. But they are great friends and partners to small and large businesses across the ecosystem. So if you don't know them, get to know them. Today is our 100 and 34th session of business as usual, we launched the beginning of the pandemic, to help the tech community and the community at large to be stay connected, and to stay informed to showcase some of the world changing innovation that is occurring in Pittsburgh, and even beyond and creating our tentacles, the relationships that we have outside of the region as well. So you'll note that we muted everything, so that on your end, just so that we don't have to hear some of the background noise. And we can be honorable to our guest, who I'm very excited to introduce in one moment. And then we have a chat session in there that's going to allow you to ask some questions, Jonathan will keep his eye on that. And we'll make sure that we can, you know, have a nice conversation with Chris. So I also asked, please, no advertisements, this is not the opportunity for you to advertise. So here we go. Because I want to jump in. I'm very excited. I want to make sure we make the most out of our time today. And I do want to give one bit of shout out about upcoming programs. Before I introduce Chris, if you're interested in autonomous vehicles, obviously, you might be if you've joined the show today and you want to learn a little bit more about how we can support this cluster. Join us next Friday, we're gonna have a special session with Finch Fulton, who is the deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Transportation. And he's going to discuss the autonomous vehicles 4.0, which is a recent report that outlines the nation's strategy to support safe deployment of AV technologies but also to support the vibrant industry and research base here in the United States and in particular, in Pittsburgh as well because we as Pittsburghers selfishly care about that. So today, I'm thrilled to introduce Chris Urmson. He is the CEO of Aurora. And some of you might have heard that Aurora has actually expanded their presence in Pittsburgh, they've been incredible partners with us, we might recall, I don't know It's been more than a few months ago, but we work with Aurora and and neighborhood allies and other tech companies to make sure that the digital divide in Pittsburgh, particularly for those who are in the city of Pittsburgh, and some surrounding areas got access to the tools they need as we went virtual. So their leadership has been pretty demonstrable. That's just one example. So I'm going to jump in welcome, Chris. Thank you for dialing in. I think you got up a little early, not too early. You're out in the Bay Area. So it's probably 9am. And thrilled to have you on the show. And let's just talk about Chris. Okay, who is Chris, what's your personal professional journey? from the University of Manitoba, to DARPA to Google Carnegie Mellon? I know I'm a little checkered here, but I think that includes everything right.

A monster? Yeah, there's definitely things I've missed you go ahead. Oh, yeah, I think people really enjoyed a 30 minute exposition of my seat. No, but first, thank you so much for having me here. Really, really privileged to get a chance to chat with you. We're proud to be part of the Pittsburgh community we've been since Yeah, since the founding of the company on day one. And for me, you know, I lived in the area for 11 years before moving out here. So I'm Canadian. I grew up in Canada. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba. And then came down to Carnegie Mellon to do a PhD in robotics. I had the privilege of getting to know the Pittsburgh community through that and we were just discussing beforehand lift all through the squirrel Hill and shady side areas. We moved roughly once every year, so that see all kinds of different, you know, inexpensive housing in the area. There I got a chance to work with incredible people like red Whittaker and Dave wintergreen and the robotics Institute faculty and got a chance to go see In the world, so we took, I had a chance take robots with teams up to the Arctic Circle. And now the Atacama Desert in Chile, which was just incredible opportunity to combine technology with geography and seeing these amazing places. And then towards the end of my time at Carnegie Mellon, I was part of the team, the DARPA Grand Challenge teams versus a graduate student, then ultimately, as a faculty member, where we built robots to drive across the desert first and then around around the mock urban environment, and ultimately ended up winning the the urban challenge with with the university. From there, I had a chance to go out to Google and it was originally this kind of two year adventure that, you know, loved Carnegie Mellon love Pittsburgh. And I got basically, my wife and I talked about, we really want to go live in California with the crazy people, the Birkenstocks live. And, you know, we're young, we could go try it out for a couple years. Worst case, come back and pick up my job at university and carry on. And it was one of the, you know, turned out to be one of the most incredible opportunities anyone could ask for, I was headed out there helped found the Google self driving car team, which is now way Moe, led that for about seven and a half years. At the end of that, realize that, well, I wasn't drinking, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I shouldn't. I and that, for me, I am at my best and most effective when I'm enjoying what I'm doing probably like many of us on the call today, and realized it was time to kind of get out of the way and with the team that is, you know, kind of stepping into to lead that. And so I spent a few months trying to figure out what to do next. And kind of came to the conclusion, I was I remember being on a flight to Korea, and realizing that the thing I wanted to do was to do something important with with good people. And I spent the next little while trying to figure out what that meant, kind of was like a fortune cookie wisdom. And I guess, where where does this go and realized I had the opportunity to help build something that would have an important impact in the world, making transportation safer, more accessible, and less expensive. And so with, with Drew and Sterling, are to co found two other co founders, we founded Aurora with the mission to deliver the benefit to self driving technology safely, quickly and broadly. And that's what we've been building for the last three and three quarter years now. And so the company is 550 plus people, we're located in Pittsburgh, in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and in Bozeman, Montana. And we're really incredibly proud of the people that have joined us incredibly proud of the work we're doing as a company and looking forward to helping you know, helping through partnerships, other companies deliver this this technology to the world and, you know, make it better.

That's, that's pretty amazing. And that's a wonderful vision. Let's, let's back up for a second. So you talked about, you know, Google, and obviously, there's some legacy there yet, you know, the teams that you built the people that that you added to your team. So some of the some of the lineage though, in terms of the offshoots of people out of that team is also noteworthy. So can you can you talk about that, like any of the people who have went off and done some other interesting things? Because that is part of the magic, right? The magic is, you know, the gift that keeps on giving and entrepreneurship is, is others creating?

Yeah, no, I it is one of the things that I really appreciate I look at my job as a leader is to help help the team get where we're going to company get where we're going submission, but also help the individuals, the parts of our team, you know, accomplish what they want to do with mine. And I have been incredibly fortunate blessed to work with some incredible people over the years. And so if we look at the self driving car team in Google, you know, so so we have a couple of couple of our earliest members went off to found neuro Dave for recent and treasures out Dave is a Carnegie Mellon alumni as well. Brian Solecki worked with me both at Carnegie Mellon then came out to to Google and now vitargo, another Pittsburgh based company that does self driving car technology. A number of others went on to start whether SOS who worked with us, they went on to start a variety of different companies in the space and others. So it's, it's a privilege to have had a chance to work these folks and you know, and like to think that you know, was able to cry just you smitch to these already incredible people to help them get so real, you

know, that's quite noble and altruistic in, you know, don't you ever get sad

that these people leave? You?

Know, right, do I miss working with them? Absolutely. Right, these are incredible.

Uh, I think I think as a leader, you're you know, you have to realize that the no one who works with you is a denture, right? That that you want people with you to grow, you want to foster an environment where they they really enjoy it want to contribute to it, want to make sure that they're also realizing their ambitions, and that they get a chance, hopefully, you can create that for them internally. But it's not like there is a joy of starting something new. And by definition, you can't do that in the place that you are right. And so I know, helping helping set the station and knowing and communicating folks that like look, life is long. And it's been awesome working with you. And if you want me to go do this, go do it. But know that you'll be welcome back and knowing that if they do come back when they come back, right, they're going to be stronger and better. Yeah, that's that's just exciting. Right. And I think that's a long, you

know, thank you. Thank you for saying that. That's, that's very candid, and appreciate that. So you looking back to the earliest days of Aurora, and really through today, one of the secret sauces of your success is the ability to find amazing people to work with you, which you've just articulated. So tell us about your co founders and tell us about some of the truly diverse people that have actually helped you whether they're there or not anymore. You mentioned a few of them.

Yeah, so so are the three of us who found the company or drew Sterling nigh Sterling is an MIT PhD, he went to McKinsey for a couple years and then went to to Tesla and help launch autopilot Model X. And so as this deep experience in shipping, you know, technology in the automotive space, drew back now. You know, he and I have known each other since 99. We went to grad school together at Carnegie Mellon, you know, he left me there started after me in graduate joined the faculty before me so just truly brilliant. was on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon doing amazing research was part of that group that helped found the Uber ATG team in Pittsburgh, ended up leaving that and coming to join us and he's one of the world's experts in machine learning applied to motion planning and robotics. And so that he think about building self driving technology. But Drew's deep experience in in machine learning, which is one of the foundational technologies we need for it and Sterling's experience in shipping things, and in kind of a tech automotive world. And, you know, my experience of doing whatever it is I do seemed like a nice, nice starting point. And then we've we've been fortunate to attract amazing people to join us. So we were talking before the show about berardo who's Lita GM relations team and yes, just incredibly dynamic person, you know, was down in Austin, I worked with him when I was at Google ended up convincing me with Pittsburgh to move to Pittsburgh, and he hasn't looked back, there's folks like Jesse Smith on our simulation team, credibly gifted young woman who, you know, helps make our vehicles testing and simulation tools effective. We have, you know, other brilliant folks that lead our communications marketing team who've done that marketing teams who've done that at very high levels, for brands like Tesla and Nike. Right, and, and again, I think, to help to build a team like that, we have to, we have to have a vision that people are excited about, we have to have a mission that we're on that's meaningful, and then we have to have a culture, an environment where they can flourish, where they could have an impact where they, you know, they can they can do their their their life's best work. And that's what we aspire to as a leadership team here.

It's great. It's exciting, you can see that you can we can see that right, right off the bat in terms of even the Civic muscle that you've already demonstrated in our in our region as we've expanded. So Jonathan, there's a couple of questions out there that I'd like to be asked.

Let's start with Lou camerlengo. Here. So he's assuming that Aurora is creating job roles have previously existed, how are you identifying the skills and competencies for those jobs and matching them to the talents that's available?

You try that again. I don't know that I quick parse better.

Yeah, he's, he's assuming that rora is creating new job roles that I haven't had not existed at this point. And I'm How are you identifying the skills and competencies for these jobs and then matching them to talent that you can actually get to?

Yeah, so

I don't know, are we here? There we go.

So, you know, I think that,

you know, we're exploring a new space. And, and it turns out some of these, you know, these kind of interdisciplinary roles are not roles that would be in a conventional organization, perhaps, you know, prior to what we had been, you know, the last decade, there wasn't a self driving vehicle. Operator, right. And so, over the over the last decade, or 15 years, part of what we have in Aurora is the, we actually have some of the most deeply experienced people in this new space. And so we've been able to kind of tap into that experience to identify, you know, we need, we need this flavor of person, right, they need to have certain attributes around a degree of technical competence, or a degree of operational excellence or integrity or, you know, the ability to learn rapidly, and then we try to, we then try to cast as broad as possible to bring a diverse workforce into a war, because I get one of our core values is went together. And this is really about making sure that we build a company that's reflective of the world that we're going to serve, right, we're building a technology that when we're successful, will impact everyone's lives. And we want to make sure that we have that reflected in the workforce internally, so that we can, you know, we can we can make sure we're not instructed blind spots.

Silly. How about the roll out of five D two big talk around here in Pittsburgh? How is that going to impact self driving technology?

Um, I think it is a jacent. But it's not central to. So with 5g technology being ubiquitous, it will still be near ubiquitous, which means that we have to have onboard intelligence, we have to be able to operate the vehicle based on that, that the ability to have quality of service control limits on on the data that comes to and from the vehicle will enable perhaps incrementally more robust remote operations service for these vehicles. But we think we can do most of that with the 4g stuff that's out there. But I think like any other domain, more bandwidth is better. And it'll actually be interesting to see if there are applications that, that as we as we experiment with it, we discover that are hobbyists today.

Yeah, so this is the toughest question of the day, your estimate as to when self driving cars will really become a part of everyday life?

Yeah, so so I think that we'll start to see them within the next five years, right. And in fact, you know, if you lived in, in Phoenix today, you can get a ride in a self driving car, if you're one of the Chosen Few from from my former company. And so that's their, their, you know, there's there's initial initial deployments of them out there. And Aurora, we expect that the most likely first entry points will be in logistics. And so we're putting a lot of emphasis on that first, your driver will ultimately win people and goods to the world. But we think the first place it moves is, is goods. And the reason for that is, is that we think you can trade performance for safety early on. So for example, if you're in the back of a taxi, trying to make a left turn across traffic, and you get the sight window, and you see a gap in traffic, and the taxi driver doesn't go, you get frustrated, because I could have gone through that I need to get going. And so if we had a self driving vehicle that's being a little bit more cautious like that, the rider is going to be a little frustrated that the vehicle doesn't make that turn they could have. Whereas if you're a roll of toilet paper, well, you're not conscious. And so if you're sat in the back of the truck, and it waits for a slightly bigger gap, to make sure that it's confidence in the safety. Yeah, still get there. And so we think that's, you know, that's kind of intuitively why that's probably the first place for this technology that it comes to scale. So

let me just jump in. We have a couple of more questions, but I just want I want everyone to understand. So how does Aurora fit actually into the AV ecosystem? So how is it different than some of the other you know, companies that are that are here in Pittsburgh, and in this space?

Yeah, I think that there's a few different ways. That one is I think that the, the depth of experience and culture we have this company, I think is one of the real qualities we have as an organization and allows people to do their best work and I think that that ultimately It will be what enables us to succeed. How do we fit the ecosystem? So, at Aurora, we took the kind of mindset that we didn't want to do everything. But we can, let's focus on the thing we think we can do best in the world. And that is built the driver. And so that's what we're making. It's a roar driver, this this capability that we can add to vehicles to make them suitable. And then we'll work with others to deliver that driver in the world through partnership. And so we'll work with automotive companies. And we'll work with folks who are in truck manufacturers, who work with folks who need trucks to take things from one place to another move people from one place to another, not build those businesses, because whether it's one of the big truck always has been doing this for 100 years, one of the on many factors has been factors. That's an incredibly complicated business that we don't have the ability or interest to replicate, let's work with them that will be faster, that will have a bigger impact in the world. And similarly, whether it's whether it's a JB cleanse, or a FedEx or Amazon or Uber or Lyft, those are all companies that have these incredibly complicated businesses that we don't need to replicate, but we can help their businesses be stronger by creating them a safe driving capability for their vehicles.

So Jonathan, there's a couple of more questions, if you want to

grab some great ones here. I always love the questions from the crowd. They got the sharpest minds out there. I'm going to jump down to snows and great question here. How does Aurora sea itself stand out in the landscape of self driving of the self driving car industry? And this is the really cool part, if you could ask a regulation change from the government? What would you ask for?

Yeah, so the first part of it, I think, I think the quality people we have, I think is unique. The fact that we're at this point, really the only scale independent player in the space I think is meaningful, that means that we can have a broader impact. And we're, we're not distracted by whatever the other ships businesses, we can really spend all of our time focus on building the best technology, the best driver and deliver that product into the world. And then the fact that we are multihomed. And as diverse populations, we have the ROI, I think is a big deal. The fact you know, we have great people in Pittsburgh, we have great people in Bozeman, Montana, we have great people in California. That gives us a kind of a cultural diversity. It gives us a you know, a weather and environmental diversity, which I think is really, really valuable to us.

Honestly, what would I ask regulators today?

So there's kind of a meta answer, which is, if you look across the states, there's a variety of difference on rules. And so we could homologate those. So for example, in Pittsburgh, if you're making a right I, probably my lawyers check this but my understanding is in Pittsburgh, if you're making a right turn across a bicycle lane, you stay in the lane of the vehicle lane of travel, and j turn through the bicycle lane. In California, the way you're supposed to make a right turn through a bicycle lane is within you know, some distance of the corner, you actually shift right into the bicycle lane, as the vehicle claimed the bicycle lane and then make the turn there. The idea being that you don't end up with this blind right turn where the my side, right and so you can kind of do understand either of these being rational ways that you should make a right turn across traffic, but the fact that the rules of the road are different in those states increase the complexity of building a product that's interoperable across the state. So if there are a way to Margate those a variety of the other kind of driver rules. That's probably the thing that I would would ask regulators to tweak

their Yeah.

I've been doing it wrong, Jonathan.

Yeah. Question.

Yeah. From from Dave here once No, has there been significant or even measurable progress in settling the non technical aspects of autonomous vehicles, for example, like liability and insurance?

Yeah, so I think those so so what's interesting about automated vehicles is about a road startup is that it's not it's not a normal startup, right? A normal startup, what happens is you have a handful of people throw some ideas at the wall, and some part of it sticks in apify that you run as fast as you can kind of in the direction that you get the most stick. And so you end up you end up running into these these kind of interesting problems and kind of

iterating on them rapidly.

With self driving technology in the space that Aurora is working on. There's this huge technical innovation investment we have to make to get to that minimum viable product and then We get to iterate questions of exactly. Who does the fleet? How is it operated? And, you know, what, what, what are the refinements we need to make to the UI and make it as useful to the customer as possible? And, you know, should we go all the way to the curb? Or should we curb or should we pulled two feet away? So it was a place for someone to step between the curb and right, all of that stuff is going to be really interesting product refining questions to get into things like, you know, the liability question, the liability. Basically, who pays for the liability if this? Right, those will be part of the business iterations that happen after we crossed the technical chasm? So yes, we spent a lot of time thinking through these things. And no, none of them look like showstoppers. But there's a variety of different futures that could play out. And they're really around how does the business evolve? And how the economics work?

Yeah, I'm sure it's pretty complex. And I appreciate the information on the link out there on the Pittsburgh left,

because you remember that? Oh, yes.

Yeah, that's sort of a scary thing. Um, so appreciate seeing seeing in an operation. So you know, it listen in Pittsburgh, that, you know, leadership in this sector is a source of tremendous pride, and it's created a significant pivot in our economy. And actually, even our notoriety really was an inflection point for us. So obviously, there's, you know, we have tremendous assets, as we've mentioned earlier, and, and, or else, we wouldn't have made it this far. But if you have to assess like, you just you just talked about all the different places that you're at, and all the work that you've done. So if you've had to assess some of the areas where you, you know, we can improve, where can we improve? What should we be doing? And if you were to advise me, us, etc, tell me what what what are you saying?

What would ya? So I think there's I think this company, so one is, there's just this incredible technical town, right? Coming out of Carnegie Mellon, coming out of neighboring areas, there's just there's a lot of a lot of great talent, technical talent in the area. I think the city itself is amazing. I lived in the city for 11 years. Right? Particularly if you're raising a starting a family, it's just, there's so much they're from kind of from the old money that was invested in the city. And so I think that's, that's tremendous, I think telling that story. broader, because it's still, I don't know how this is the case, but it's still kind of a hidden gem. Right, the the, you know, what, what Pittsburgh is and the possibilities there. I think the hardest. The hardest thing to climb up will be the kind of the non technical talent for right. So there's amazing people in Pittsburgh that are in business, but it doesn't have yet the wave after wave of startup. And so it's different operating in a fortune 500 company that's kind of in a steady growth phase, versus a company going from zero to 100 to 500 to 2000 people. And with the Bay Area, as is so much turns. So many of these companies kind of come and go and people are able to move through those cycles and get interations on that way that they don't have those same iterations in the Pittsburgh area. And so there's this continuing to foster kind of entrepreneurial ism, and, and startups in the space so that we can build that base is gone through cycles, and then can spin off into extended other companies to help them up the curve.

Mm hmm. Yeah, we might get comfortable. In some ways we have this deep work ethic. Yeah. In terms of loyalty, etc. That's pretty pervasive and is an asset.

But yeah, absolutely. Right. And it's, it's just it's, and we have amazing people in Pittsburgh, and we're very proud of the folks we have there. But they're, it's we find it harder to find some of those GA, I feel some of those ga type roles, because, again, it's different. If you're you can be an amazing executive and amazing leader in one style of organization, but it's not quite the same skill set. You need a different.

That's right. Yeah, I think you've nailed it. So listen, we're gonna count on you and your leadership and the way that you've built your organization to help us and you're already doing that by expanding and deepening your footprint here. You've been amazing civic stewards. There's just there hasn't been anything that you haven't raised your hand for to make sure that Pittsburgh is an amazing place. So my hat's off to you for your leadership. And Are you hiring now that you're hiring right here and Should we go to the website and make sure that we're looking at all the opportunities?

Absolutely. You know, we have been hiring we've been hiring through the through the pandemic, we're always looking for awesome people. www rota tech right here values, silver technology and get to our jobs.

So are there any final words that you want to say to all of us anything that you think that we should have covered that I didn't ask or any of our participants didn't ask?

I'm sure it was we I think we could probably spend hours on it's been it's been fun. I think, for us, we're proud to be part of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, as you know, we were in China company, we did something very odd. We had on day one offices in Pittsburgh. And in Palo Alto, we really needed we talk about the fact that we have a Palo Alto headquarters, and we have a Pittsburgh headquarters. And there, we do our best to kind of keep two strong pillars, kind of the sound accompany so it's thrilling to me to have a chance to you know, outside of this pandemic, to be able to be back in Pittsburgh on a regular basis and engage with the community and we're proud of, of Pittsburgh, and we're proud to be part of it. So thank you.

Now we are two we are two we are thrilled, I can't thank you enough for taking the time with us today. We'll stay connected. We've given everyone the resources, even the left turn the video of how they're doing in terms of the left turn, but you have your you've built something really special. And the people that are here, definitely replicate the values that you articulated. That's no BS. So really want to thank you for that. And we look forward to continued growth, continued partnership, continued innovation, and and picking your brain for the good ideas that you just conveyed at the end. So everyone, that was Chris Urmson he, you can probably find out about him on LinkedIn. But this is a person who is at the helm of Aurora and very committed to Pittsburgh, I can't thank you enough. And who what do we have tomorrow, Jonathan,

where we have Priscilla coming in from bear talking about basically their search for innovation and how they apply it towards

bear used to have their their North American headquarters here, but they still have a footprint.

They have a massive presence here still. Absolutely.

So thank you, Chris. Thank you, everyone for joining. And we'll see you here tomorrow. Stay safe.

Thanks very much. Take care.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai