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Aurora CEO Chris Urmson says self-driving tech too important not to succeed

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, April 10, 2018, 5:33 p.m.
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, talks with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, about the development of self-driving cars during the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)

A pioneer of self-driving cars who led ground-breaking work at Carnegie Mellon University and Google on Tuesday urged Pennsylvania's top transportation official to take a cautious approach to regulating the evolving industry.

Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, warned that overly strict rules on self-driving cars could stifle innovation.

"Despite a lot of the headlines, this is very early," Urmson said during a discussion with PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards. "We want to be careful that the regulation is not overly prescriptive on how you solve the problem because it will lead to unintended consequences, and it will cause us to almost certainly to end up in some kind of dead end."

Urmson and Richards sat side-by-side on a stage at the start of the final day of the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit in Pittsburgh. The discussion ranged from his early days with autonomous vehicle technology at CMU to leading Google's self-driving effort to Aurora, which is testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh.

Urmson told a story about a three-legged dog that urinated on one of his early robots in the Atacama Desert in Chile, shared the "absolutely terrifying" thought of his oldest son getting his learner's permit soon and predicted what travel might be like in 2028.

His vision: More self-driving cars but fewer self-driving car companies; public transit that can take you to your doorstep; and traffic deaths down 5 percent, with a little luck.

"It's going to be a pretty exciting place in 2028," Urmson said.

Richards did not ask Urmson about last month's crash in Tempe, Ariz., where an self-driving Uber hit and killed a woman walking her bike across a street or the set of voluntary guidelines she announced Monday that she expects autonomous vehicle companies testing cars in Pennsylvania to follow. PennDOT for the first time has asked autonomous car companies, including Aurora, to share information with the state about the vehicles they are testing, who is behind the wheel and where, when and how the cars will be tested. The guidelines are voluntary, but Richards expects companies testing in the state to comply.

"We'd like to think that you're part of our home team," Richards said near the end of the conversation.

Urmson told the Tribune-Review after his talk that he hasn't had an opportunity to go over the new guidelines in detail but thought they looked "good in spirit," and it seemed possible Aurora could comply.

No self-driving car company testing vehicles in Pennsylvania has yet agreed to the new guidelines. Uber and Argo AI both said they look forward to working with PennDOT. Richards will host a meeting in the next two to three months to go over the guidelines with the companies.

Urmson's talk Tuesday was a homecoming, of sorts. Although Aurora has an office in Pittsburgh and expects to employ more than 200 people at its new, 40,000-square-foot space in Lawrenceville, Urmson spends more time in California, where the company has offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco.

Urmson worked on early self-driving systems at CMU, where he earned his Ph.D. in robotics, taught as an assistant professor and led the Tartan Racing team to victory in the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge.

After CMU, Urmson went to Google, where he helped start its self-driving car program.

"It was pure science fiction," Urmson said. "And so when we started at Google it was really, like 'Is this even possible with the technology that we have today?' and within a about a year and half, we were able to convince ourselves that yes... maybe not today but soon."

Urmson said early on the team at Google realized that a car that only did some of the driving but still relied on a human to take control wasn't the safest option. Google started to work on a completely driverless car.

This year, Waymo, the name of Google's self-driving car company, plans to launch a completely driverless taxi service in Phoenix.

Urmson left Google in 2016. The next year, Urmson founded Aurora with Sterling Anderson, the former head of Tesla's Autopilot program; and Drew Bagnell, who led autonomy and perception at Uber's Advanced Technology Group in Pittsburgh.

Aurora has had a big 2018. The company signed deals at the beginning of the year to develop self-driving technology with Volkswagen, Hyundai and the Chinese electric car startup BYTON. In February, Aurora announced it had raised $90 million. Last month, the company hired the former head of software from SpaceX and expanded in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Urmson said self-driving technology is something that "deeply impacts and influences all of us." He talked about how proud he is of his work on self-driving cars to improve mobility for blind people. He shared his hope that the technology will improve the lives of the elderly and those who can't drive. And autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of people killed in car crashes, Urmson said.

Urmson said self-driving technology presents so many social benefits that he can't imagine it won't happen. But he acknowledged there will be bumps along the way.

"We do worry about the perfect being the enemy of the good," Urmson said. "The status quo is unacceptable. … We can't forgot that what we have now is broken so holding this technology up to the point where it needs to be perfect is not the right answer."

Urmson said he thought PennDOT will still have to issue driver's licenses for a couple more decades. He had hoped his oldest son wouldn't need to get one. His son grew up thinking every car was a robot car like his father worked on, calling them "bobots," Urmson said.

People who love to drive will still be able to drive, Urmson said. He has a Audi convertible that is a blast to drive on the open road but not so much in the traffic of San Francisco.

And road trips aren't going anywhere.

"You'll move from being the helmsman to the captain," Urmson said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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