clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

One of the biggest challenges of self-driving cars: The humans inside them

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Aurora CEO Chris Urmson warns that we might get too complacent about the technology before it’s totally ready.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A Google/Waymo self-driving car Chesnot / Getty

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.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts— and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

This article originally appeared on