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Safety at scale: The importance of a strong safety culture

January 26, 2022 | 3 min. read

By the Aurora Team

When speaking with partners, policymakers, and consumers about self-driving safety, we hear a lot of questions about how our vehicles operate on the road—how do they deal with aggressive drivers? What do they do when they encounter pedestrians and bicyclists? Can they navigate complex construction zones?

Questions like these are crucial and, at Aurora, they help inform our approach to building safety into the DNA of our self-driving technology. While there are many, many ways to do so—from sensors to simulations to our supercomputer and more—the foundation of our safety work is rooted in a robust, engaging, and widespread safety culture.

Aurora’s safety culture is a key part of our holistic approach to safety. It empowers our commitment to organizational, operational, and product safety by helping ensure our shared beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes prioritize safety as part of every decision our team makes. This is built around one key belief about our growing industry: failures in safety are rarely caused by a single person, but instead by organizations who fail to prevent multiple individual mistakes from accumulating into disaster.

This means that having and supporting a strong safety culture is not just a responsibility, but a necessity, for autonomous vehicle companies. A strong safety culture both empowers employees to speak up about safety concerns and motivates them to make safety a part of everything they do.

The reality is that building a strong safety culture doesn’t just make sense for the safety of the Aurora Driver and others on the road; it’s a key component to unlocking self-driving safety at scale. If we developed our autonomous vehicles first and then added a focus on safety afterward, it would require rebuilding our technology from the ground up. By identifying hazards and mitigating risks early on and in multiple areas, we increase the pace at which our technology advances and the number of operational design domains in which it can operate safely. We also grow the institutional knowledge and strengthen the overall safety of our approach with every step. With technology that holds so much promise—for the safety of our roads, the efficiency of our supply chain, and more – we are extremely motivated to build and maintain a strong safety culture that positions the Aurora Driver for success.

That’s why we’ve diligently studied and learned from other safety-critical industries and safety-focused organizations. Here are just a few examples:

  • In the airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration has long guided companies in creating positive safety cultures that enable strong Safety Management Systems (SMS) and a preventative approach to mitigating risk.

  • We’ve learned from other organizations, such as the International Standards Organization and Underwriters Laboratories, which detail the importance of safety culture across industries in ensuring functional safety.

  • The Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium published an information report, to which Aurora conforms, detailing how an SMS can support organizational safety in a systematic and integrated way for ADS L4 / L5 testing and evaluation. This emphasizes promoting a safety culture that aids in the assessment and management of safety risk, evaluates risk control effectiveness, and supports organizational safety policies and objectives.

At Aurora, we’re building on these lessons to operate with integrity and uphold our values—committing to our safety culture even as we move quickly to commercially deliver the Aurora Driver. That means giving our team the tools to speak up about safety concerns, and the resources to support understanding and mitigating them, so we can collectively make the best, most informed decisions on how to manage risks. A few key strategies exemplify our approach:

  • Universal Grounding Policy: Any Aurora employee, from vehicle operators to software engineers to our business development team, can request we halt operations of autonomous vehicles in our fleet for a safety concern.

  • Safety Concern Reporting: Our team is encouraged to submit safety concerns through a fast-response management system, which elevates potential issues to relevant teams and executives to ensure they’re quickly addressed and the learnings are documented.

  • Safety Case Framework: Teams across Aurora, from People Operations to Hardware, are tasked with helping complete our Safety Case—providing evidence that proves our self-driving vehicles are acceptably safe to operate on public roads.

Ultimately, as a growing industry, autonomous vehicle companies have a fundamental responsibility to build safety cultures that enable self-driving technologies to not only earn the trust of the public, but meet customers’ needs in a safe, scalable, and sustainable fashion. By applying experiences from other safety-critical industries, we know that building safety into the foundation of our product is the best way to manage risks—safety as an afterthought would only lead to catastrophe.

Soon, we’ll share how Aurora has implemented our safety culture, including how we measure its impact, engage and educate our team, and integrate safety into our operations. We’ll even go a step further and provide a blueprint for how others can do the same. After all, a rising tide lifts all ships, but it’s up to us to make sure they’re ready to sail.

the Aurora Team

Delivering the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly.