From Space to Self-Driving, How Jen Dawson Thinks About Designing Systems for Safety
Jen Dawson is Head of Safety here at Nuro. She built her career in mechanical engineering and spent years working on robotics projects designed to upgrade and repair spacecraft on-orbit. Today, she works to ensure our products and operations are as safe as possible — and there’s a lot that goes into it.
Preparing for the unexpected
Creating the first fully autonomous vehicle to transport goods on public roads has many considerations. Perhaps the biggest (and most complex) is analyzing all the things that could possibly go wrong, and finding ways to prevent them before they happen.
When I worked at SSL (formerly Space Systems/Loral), my title was Technical Director, but my role, in a nutshell, was just to “make it work.” That meant I was in charge of ensuring that satellites — those used by everyone from NASA to Dish to SiriusXM — were designed with sufficient performance and built-in redundancy to operate safely and correctly, despite any potential failures or mission anomalies. At Nuro, my team has a similar task: designing self-driving vehicles that are safe, even in the face of unexpected driving events, actions by others on the roads, or complications with the vehicle itself.
In designing self-driving delivery services for customers, we must understand what people need in order to have a great experience. But the success of these services ultimately relies on designing safety features into the mechanical, electrical, and software systems. That’s why we’ve created a Safety team that works closely with subject matter experts across our company, including experts on our power systems, driving systems, and autonomy sensors and software. We start with the big picture, analyzing the end-to-end system, and then dive into the details of each system component, all the way down to the circuit board level, ensuring that every element has a robust safety strategy.
Many high reliability, safety-critical industries, including aerospace, automotive, nuclear, and medical, have developed robust standards for ensuring system safety. However, self-driving vehicles do not fit neatly into any one of these categories. Because there is no blueprint, we’ve decided to leverage the best practices from several of the most applicable standards to create an approach that assures the safest autonomous fleet. By integrating redundancy and robust failsafe behavior along with safety-driven design features — like a softer vehicle body, that is thus less dangerous in an accident than traditional passenger vehicles — we develop comprehensive safety solutions. We spend our days relentlessly asking “what if,” and coming up with clever solutions to make sure we keep the public safe.
Navigating uncharted territory
An added complication to our work is that today’s federal vehicle codes aren’t designed for unmanned delivery vehicles — so our team needs to be thinking one step ahead, considering how our work relates to existing policy, as well as how it might influence and inform new regulations for the industry. For example, federal law requires that every manufactured vehicle capable of driving above 25 mph have airbags built in. However, for Nuro’s delivery vehicles — which transport goods, not people — these airbags are simply added weight, not an added benefit. To the contrary, in the event that one of our delivery robots were involved in an accident, having a heavier vehicle with an airbag would actually be more dangerous than having a lighter vehicle without one. This is just one example of the ways in which our work has required us to question existing paradigms, and develop new safety cases that we can present to regulators — aiding them as they reexamine these standards, and work to create new ones.
Trust is earned, not a given
We know that many people are not yet comfortable with the idea of sharing the roads with self-driving vehicles. That’s why consistently operating safely is of the utmost importance, especially as we continue to grow Nuro and expand our company’s services. In addition to communicating proactively and transparently with the communities and customers we serve, we’ve been careful to create vehicles that look and feel approachable, have user-friendly controls and compartments, and are programmed to prioritize the safety of everyone around them.
Public safety is crucial, and core to all we do at Nuro. In our industry — where one accident can be a major step back for the whole industry, and have devastating consequences on individuals’ lives — the stakes are extraordinarily high. We need to be exceptional in our safety engineering work, innovating wherever and whenever necessary, and consistently explaining our safety case to the public and regulators. By demonstrating that we are safe and reliable, we will continue to earn trust in our technology over time.
While we take our mission to be safe seriously, I am personally inspired and motivated every day by Nuro’s mission to save lives, by creating self-driving vehicles that are safer than human-driven delivery vehicles. Our team is exceedingly talented, but also humble, driven, ethical, and collaborative. That’s a big part of what made me a believer in Nuro and the potential that our technology has to make the world a better, safer place. And so, even though the questions “What haven’t we thought of yet?” and “What else can we do to make things better?” are the ones that keep me up at night, they’re also the ones that get me up in the morning.
Jen is giving the opening keynote at the ASME Silicon Valley Chapter Awards Banquet on Wednesday, May 29th. Her talk, on Silicon Valley’s Role in Revolutionizing Robotics, will address the importance of innovations in safety as transformative technologies like robotics continues to advance. You can connect with Jen on LinkedIn.