by Kyle Vogt
From the Editor: Mark Riccobono introduced this presenter with these enthusiastic words: “I’m very excited about this presentation. We invited this gentleman last year, but he declined—rightfully so, his wife had just had a baby, so he should have declined. He made it a priority to be here this year. We really appreciate that. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to first meet him right here in this hotel, as a matter of fact, in January at the Consumer Electronics Show when we were one of the founding partners to launch the PAVE Coalition, which is an effort to promote the opportunities that will come from driverless vehicles. This next gentleman is an innovator and a visionary in this space, and we’re proud that we’ve had the opportunity to get to know him in our efforts to make sure that autonomous vehicles are accessible to blind people from day one. He’s a relatively new and growing partner with the National Federation of the Blind. We’re happy he could make it this year. He’s the president and chief technology officer of Cruise Automation, Kyle Vogt”:
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, President Riccobono, and thank you to the National Federation of the Blind for having me. Congratulations on another successful conference. This is a really impressive turnout. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today, and I’m humbled by the remarkable work you do. I’m going to tell you a little bit about the work we do.
As Mark said, my name is Kyle Vogt. I’m the cofounder, president, and CTO of Cruise, which is a company based in San Francisco working on self-driving cars. We have about 1,500 people, and we partner with General Motors to manufacture and deploy our vehicles. We’re working every day to improve roadway safety. We think self-driving cars can be safer than humans ever could be and also can make transportation more accessible by bringing autonomous vehicles to life.
Building and deploying autonomous vehicles—we like to think of it as this generation’s Space Race. The technology challenge is immense; there’s been nothing like it since the Apollo Program. If you think about what we’re trying to do here, we’re trying to make an artificial intelligence system that is better than humans at one of the most complicated and confusing tasks that we do on a regular basis—driving—in some cases in very complex urban environments. We’ve seen computers beat humans at things like chess, which is a very structured and straightforward problem without a lot of complexity. We’ve seen computers beat people at video games and other things. But never has a computer system been better—or in this case, safer—than a human at a task as complicated and unpredictable as driving out on public roads where there are other drivers doing things: pedestrians, cyclists, and all of it can come together and create a very chaotic scene.
The stakes for what we are doing are enormous. Beyond just safety we want to bring accessibility to seniors, people with any kind of disability, and all of our vehicles are electric, so we want to make the air in our cities cleaner as well. To us the vehicle of the future shouldn’t be built like the vehicles of the past. [applause]
Like the Apollo Program in the 1960s, today’s Space Race (if you want to call it that) is being led by the private sector and not government. The industry is driving a technology revolution with huge impacts, and that makes the work that we’re doing together working with the NFB extremely important. Since the government is not pushing, this is being led by private companies, and we’ve got to work together and fight to make sure that this technology is actually available.
Our mission, simply put, is to build the most advanced self-driving vehicles to safely connect people to the places, things, and experiences they care about. This sounds like sort of a simple mission, but it’s not simple to pull off. People, of course, are at the center of that, and I think that that’s pretty important. Because every year 40,000 Americans lose their lives on the road, and despite all the improvements we’ve been making in vehicle technology and safety technology, that number is going up, and that might be because people are using Instagram and Snapchat and doing all these other things when they should be driving. The vast majority of those accidents that lead to all those fatalities are caused by human error: 95 percent of them. So that means your car is not breaking down; that’s people doing dumb things behind the wheel, and we think that’s an opportunity where we can improve. That includes drunk driving, distracted driving, drowsy driving, emotional driving—any kind of driving that’s not the right kind of driving.
We’re sort of complacent with this reality today because there’s not a lot of opportunities other than using a car to get where you’re going in many cases. So we’re sort of comfortable with this reality that’s pretty barbaric if you think about it in terms of how dangerous driving can be. AVs [autonomous vehicles] have a significant potential to address this, especially given that 95 percent of the issues are caused by humans, because the autonomous vehicles don’t get tired, they don’t drink and drive, and they never get distracted by text messages.
So today it’s dangerous to be inside a car, and it’s dangerous to be outside a car, and in San Francisco where we’re headquartered, pedestrian fatalities have increased over the last several years. So it’s risky to be a pedestrian in San Francisco today, but it could be extremely dangerous to be a blind pedestrian in San Francisco today. I think we have a moral imperative as a society to do better, to make our streets safer for everyone, and that’s what we’re working on. That’s why I started this company, and that’s why I get up every morning thinking about how to make this happen sooner and faster and to make it more accessible to more people as quickly as we can.
If you look at the vehicles we’re building—again, going back to that Apollo Program analogy—these are pretty complicated, pretty impressive machines. They’ve got sensors that are always on: laser range finders, radars, cameras—all this pretty interesting technology that’s never been put on a car before, and together these sensors create a near-perfect 3D view of what’s happening around the car: where all the people are, where all the bikes are, where the road is, the lane markers on all of those things. So that car is computing a safe trajectory hundreds of times per second. Again, it’s doing that without ever getting distracted or ever taking a break or hopefully ever making a mistake. So even if you don’t see one of our vehicles with all of these sensors, odds are it sees you, and it’s trying to do the safe thing near you.
We’re working on this technology every day, and we want to put it on the road first in the form of a self-driving rideshare service. I know from talking to several of you that ridesharing has been game-changing in terms of accessibility and giving you back the freedom to move around when you want to. We’re going to start there by deploying vehicles like this as opposed to selling cars to individuals because this has real benefits to us. When we have a fleet of vehicles that are owned and managed, we can make sure that they’re properly maintained at all times, they’re functioning as designed, and that if one car learns something or discovers a construction zone or an accident or something, it can share that information with all the other vehicles on the road. This is something that human drivers can’t really do today because you’re busy driving. You can’t really call all the other drivers on the road and tell them what’s happening. I think that’s one of the ways that AVs are going to start maybe slightly safer than humans, and as time goes on get much, much safer. There’s no reason to me that this technology has to top out at human performance. I think down the road we can make cars that are one hundred times or one thousand times safer than human drivers are today. [applause]
This approach also allows broader consumer interaction with the technology. We’re working to create the safe, advanced vehicle, and we want it to be available to as many people as possible and not just the elite. So we’re committed to deploying these vehicles with what is called level four autonomous technology, which means it is fully autonomous within an area, so think of maybe a certain city, city geofence or something. The occupant in that vehicle never has to take control of the vehicle. And that’s really important today. It’s different than cruise control or a driver-assist feature. This means that you get in the car, and you don’t have to touch it—that’s a really big deal. It means that if you can’t get a driver’s license or you have a hard time getting a driver’s license, that’s not a problem. If your job never involves taking control of the vehicle and never involves driving the car, you shouldn’t really need a driver’s license. I don’t think anyone should need a driver’s license in the future. But you should have the freedom to go wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go, and that’s what we’re working on.
As I mentioned before, all of our vehicles are fully electric and zero-emission. We’re committed to being good stewards of the environment and want to democratize access to clean, safe, and accessible transportation and make sure the air in our cities stays clean as our population continues to grow.
Ridesharing services have already improved mobility for people with disabilities—we know that, we love that—and we believe that autonomous vehicles can take it to the next level. If you think about it, when you have a rideshare service, you’re still paying for another human being to spend their time sitting in that vehicle driving around, so that’s going to have a cost associated with it. When you take that human being out of the car and replace it with a computer system, we can drop the cost, which makes that transportation more accessible to more people. [applause] It’s also consistent; you can skip over the confusing or non-intuitive interactions with the rideshare drivers—which despite their best intentions can really vary from person to person. That consistent, reliable transportation service is something that we dream of and want to bring to life with this technology. That’s related to our culture of inclusivity and diversity. We think that diversity makes us stronger and makes our technology better. We think about that both in terms of the people who build the technology at Cruise—our employees—but also the people who use it. As you know, accessibility is not one-size-fits-all. There are 57 million Americans who identify as having a disability, and the needs of those 57 million are obviously not all the same. But while there’s no single silver bullet we can use to make this kind of technology available to everyone, I think there can be meaningful progress. So we’ve taken a pretty deliberate approach to understand the differences both between and within communities. For example the blind and low-vision community, the deaf and hard-of-hearing, people with cognitive disabilities, and the non-ambulatory community. If we recognize and understand these differences, we can hopefully make a better product for everyone. Despite our intentions we know that we don’t have all of the answers, and that’s where these partnerships come in, including this one.
Last summer we launched a first-of-a-kind initiative to better understand the rideshare experience of people who are blind, and how we can tailor that experience specifically so that when autonomous vehicles arrive, they’re available and they work for everyone. For months we worked hand-in-hand with the NFB and others in the blind and low-vision community to understand the challenges associated with using a rideshare service. These things may be obvious to many of you—like how to find the vehicle, understanding where you are during the trip, figuring out how to navigate the curb safely, and doing this complex dance when the driver is trying to find you and you’re trying to find the driver—all of those things and understanding those problems so when we design this technology without the driver, we still have a solution that works. How do you find a vehicle outside the apartment when it picks you up in a different location each time or when the driver parks on the other side of a busy road and asks you to cross lanes of traffic to get there, or drops you off on the wrong side of the road. These are all real problems that I think we can help to address.
As we’ve been made aware, the blind community is far from helpless. As President Riccobono appropriately stresses, you all are very gifted problem-solvers, and we appreciate that. We are problem-solvers. I think of building a self-driving car as one giant, complex problem to solve, so I think you’re in good company here. There are answers, solutions, and “hacks” to every one of these challenges—if you are a really good problem-solver, by the way we’re hiring. We’d love to get you involved. We want to work with you on this. I think there’s a clever solution to all of these things, even if it’s not obvious the first time we look at it. If we can solve these problems and others and make the system work, make it better, make it predictable and consistent, user-friendly, more personalizable so it knows your preferences, through all those things we hope to make it more accessible or more usable to more people. These are only a handful of the issues that we explore together with the NFB and others in our research study. We also went a little beyond that, and we examined the challenges together and worked on co-designing potential solutions together.
Our work, of course, is not done. In fact over just the last couple days here in Vegas we’ve continued to work with the NFB and hosted more accessibility workshops and research sessions. We’re sort of a sponge for information. We want to learn more and understand the problems better. We want to partner, and we want to learn from you. I think together we can unlock the remarkable promise of this technology.
We can’t do this alone. We believe fundamentally in the power of partnership, as do you. It’s in our DNA. We partner with General Motors and also Honda to build our vehicles so that we can get there faster by going together. We partner with world-class organizations like the NFB to help us learn and help us make our user experience the best it can be.
The NFB has been an outspoken leader on this issue, including calling on our elected officials to expedite the day when AVs can be a reality and we can actualize the benefits that they can bring. The unfortunate reality is that AVs have no shortage of critics. Changing the status quo is often something people are hesitant to do, and many things that are new, such as autonomous vehicles or the idea of a car without a driver are often misunderstood at first. But we both know differently, that the status quo we live in today can be much better. One hundred people die on US roads every single day, and millions of Americans struggle to live independently because of the barriers to accessible transportation. So we need your help to change it. Six million Americans with a disability have difficulty getting the transportation they need, which affects not just quality of life but also employment and connection to the community. So not only can AVs help solve those challenges, but research shows that AVs can help two million Americans with disabilities enter the workforce and save nineteen billion dollars annually in healthcare from missed medical appointments. That is a future worth fighting for, and I think we need to do it together. [applause]
So I had the idea for Cruise over twenty years ago when I was on a road trip with my father traveling down a two-lane highway from where I grew up in the Kansas City area to a robot competition here in Las Vegas. I remember staring down that road, and it was just a mind-numbingly boring task of just holding the steering wheel and going in a straight line, and I thought, “Man, that seems like something a computer could do.” Immediately when I got home I started trying to hack together something. Of course here we are, over twenty years later and billions of dollars invested into this and 1,500 people working on it, and we’re still not quite done. But we’re making progress, and it matters. So not only do we have all that wasted time and human potential but the thousands of deaths on our streets every year and the barriers to mobility and independence faced by people with disabilities. It’s clear that something needs to change. So this is my life’s work. I knew it when I was ten years old, and I feel it even more strongly now. It’s why I dedicate myself to building this technology every single day, as do the thousands of people at Cruise and GM and our other partners. I know AVs will change the way we live and move: they’ll save lives, improve accessibility, reduce emissions and air pollution, and give people back the most important resources: their time and their freedom to go where they want to go when they want to go. I’m honored to partner with the NFB in this pursuit. Thank you very much. [applause]