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The future of roads is all about safety

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Cavnue Chief Safety Officer Nicole Neeson

Last year, SIP — a company spun out of Sidewalk Labs that’s focused on the future of infrastructure — launched Cavnue, whose mission is to build the world’s most advanced roads. This is the third in a series of three Sidewalk Talk interviews with Cavnue leaders. You can find our interview with CTO Jaime Waydo here and with CEO Tyler Duvall here.

Nicole Neeson isn’t just the Head of External Affairs at Cavnue, she’s also the Chief Safety Officer — and that was an intentional decision. “Those two pieces go together for me,” Neeson told Sidewalk Talk editors Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk in a virtual interview. “It was critical … that safety messaging not be off to the side, while we talk about innovation. They need to be together and part of the whole company’s culture.”

Before joining Cavnue, Nicole was the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and previously served in several roles in the U.S. Department of Transportation, including as administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She spoke with us about the potential for private-public collaboration, and new technologies like connected infrastructures and autonomous vehicles, to advance road safety and grant greater mobility freedom to everyone.

Watch a video of our conversation above or read an edited transcript below.

Vanessa: Nicole, thank you so much for joining us today.

Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Eric: Nicole, thank you for joining us. With your experience, you could do whatever you wanted in the world of transportation. So why Cavnue? What excites you about the mission?

Eric, I so appreciate that question because, for me, transportation safety is part of my DNA. My father was a police highway patrol officer in my childhood. So he would go out to work on that motorcycle, trying to make our roads safer. He was an advocate, a strong advocate, for reducing the BAC, blood alcohol level to .08 in New York State. So I grew up thinking about transportation safety.

And then having had the opportunity to serve as both the NHTSA administrator, which is the regulator for vehicle safety, and the highway administrator, your regulator for road safety, Cavnue was just a dream job for me. It’s a place to bring vehicles and roads together, to try to advance safety for all Americans. I could not be more excited about this opportunity.

Vanessa: Nicole, when you think about the biggest areas of need in terms of road technology, what do you think that is? What do we need for road technology?

Well, we have such wonderful partners in our state DOTs. I really admire the work that state departments of transportation do every day quietly, without anybody really noticing. Especially after an emergency, when you have a situation like a hurricane where everybody needs to get out and then the roads all need to be cleared and then everybody needs to get back in again. It’s your state DOT crews that are out focusing on solving those problems for everyday Americans all throughout the year. And they want to innovate. They want to be creative. They want to spend time thinking about “How do we improve quality of life for Americans?”, while they’re solving their everyday challenges and their emergency response challenges.

I feel like that’s one thing that Cavnue can really bring to the table, these wonderful partnerships where we’ve brought in tremendous people from all aspects of the industry to say, “We know you have a desire to innovate and be creative. We also know you have day-to-day and emergency responsibilities that take priority. We’ve got a solution that I think is going to be very exciting to you.” And so far the response has been tremendous.

Eric: We think about autonomous vehicles as being so intertwined with the future of roads and the future of transportation. We also think of safety as one of the biggest benefits of AVs. How do you describe the potential safety impact of this technology?

Well, years ago, Eric, when I was the NHTSA administrator, that’s 2006–7-and-8, we talked about autonomous vehicles and the promise that connected autonomous vehicles would bring to so many in our society, who either don’t have cars and are looking for mobility options, or they’re unable to drive, or they’re elderly and they’re dealing with all kinds of health challenges. And we said, AVs can help a large segment of our society be more mobile, which we view as a right, for all people to be able to get to wherever it is they need to go. To see family, to go to the grocery store, to see the doctor. And we haven’t quite gotten to that next level yet.

I left the Department of Transportation in 2008. I came back into DOT in 2019. And so in that decade, we’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough to fulfill that promise that we offered to Americans 10 years earlier. And I think Cavnue can really bridge that gap between vehicles and vehicle safety and the road and road safety.

Vanessa: And how do you think we’ll know when AVs are safe enough to be deployed widely? And who should be the ones making that judgment?

It’s funny, Vanessa, when I was in Germany at least a decade ago, I got into an autonomous vehicle at an airport and the vehicle led us to the proving ground, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, we’re fourth and goal with this technology. We’re right there.” And I think there’s still a lot of mistrust, distrust, maybe from the public. But I also think that we’re getting past that.

The more they hear about it, the more they see it, the more they realize that there are safety benefits, because of course over 90 percent of all crashes in this country are caused by human error. It’s people who are distracted or someone across the lane is looking at their phone and drives into them. People fall asleep. It’s really a horribly tragic number of fatalities that occur for people who are exhausted coming home from work late at night. And when we want to offer these solutions, so that those 36,000 plus fatalities that we see on our roads every year can be zero.

Eric: Given how long you’ve spent wrestling with these issues in government, what value do you think the private sector brings to these issues that the government can’t necessarily achieve on its own?

There are many individuals in the private sector who’ve been out in front, pushing these kinds of solutions for years. And government has, rightly, been saying, “We need to look carefully. We need to think about it more. We need to consider. We need to study.” And so, what I think Cavnue is proposing is a solution that says: “We understand safety is the priority.”

I am the Head of External Affairs, but I’m also the Chief Safety Officer, because those two pieces go together for me. It was critical when I was talking with our CEO, Tyler Duvall, that he be engaged as part of the safety culture of this company and that safety messaging not be off to the side, while we talk about innovation. They need to be together and part of the whole company’s culture. Everyone in the C-suite needs to believe and embrace that mission.

And so, I think if you have private sector companies that are focused on safety, they can present solutions to government regulators to say: “We understand your top priority is to reduce fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. We have an innovative solution that puts safety first. Come meet with us.” That’s my hope.

Renderings of Cavnue autonomous lane. (Images: Cavnue)

Vanessa: So you guys at Cavnue are working on an exciting new project in Michigan. Would you mind talking about that project and what you’re hoping to learn from it?

Well, the Michigan project is such an extraordinary flagship project for the company. But what’s even more exciting to me is the fact that we can take the Michigan project — and all of the pieces that we’re already learning about the tech stack, about how we can deploy Level 2-plus vehicles with their advanced driver assistance programs included — and share that message with other state DOTs.

What I’m really excited about for Michigan is that the governor and the OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] in Michigan — Michigan’s always a leader when it comes to transportation, have agreed to move ahead on this project. And now we can say, “It’s already happening here in Michigan. Wouldn’t you be interested in your state?” And for me, as the Chief Safety Officer and the Head of External Affairs, that is such a win for this company, I think.

Eric: And the project, for folks who might not know, is a 40-mile connected autonomous corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit that will connect those two job hubs. And my understanding is that the first use case for it will be transit vehicles, buses. Can you talk about the importance of that and why Cavnue thinks transit should be the leader here?

Right. Transit is such a critical piece, because that was what we promised autonomous vehicles could be so many years ago. For people who are struggling to get from Point A to Point B, who don’t have a car, people who certainly can’t afford to take a taxi 40 miles from one location to another. The option for safe and efficient, quick, and environmentally friendly transit is such a win for the community and for the state DOTs. No one loses when we have AV transit that works safely. It gives everybody opportunities they may not otherwise have.

Vanessa: I’d like to zoom out a little bit. When you think about where the transportation industry is going in the next 20 years, what do you see? What’s the future?

Well, I do think we are at a tipping point. It’s a very interesting moment for Cavnue. I think there’s been tremendous conversation and interest around EVs that we hadn’t heard for many, many years. And I think Cavnue can support EVs through charging stations along the side of the roadway while also advancing innovation and new technologies for connected and autonomous vehicles. So I think this is a tremendous moment for this company. It’s an extraordinary moment where there’s interest in Congress to have a very large infrastructure bill. Eye popping numbers have been passed around by Senators and House members. And also we know that the OEMs are starting to roll out new safety technologies, lane keeping devices, for example, brake assist. Those kinds of things are focused on safety, but they’re really technology advances. And there’s a huge interest right now in getting legislation through that focuses on new innovation. I think Cavnue is perfectly well positioned right now.

Eric: Last question for you, Nicole and we will let you go. We think a lot at Sidewalk about how technology could impact the future of cities. You were just talking a bit about the transportation industry at large. But what type of impact do you think Cavnue could have on the people who live in cities and the choices they make every day?

I think being able to develop these new AV laneways can make a difference in lives, both personally, people who need personal vehicle options, such as transit as we just discussed, but also for freight. I think as we’ve seen during the pandemic, people like to order from home and that’s just going to grow and continue. And one thing we are thinking about at Cavnue to help improve traffic, to help reduce fatalities on the roads, is AV trucking. Is that an option for growth? There seems to be huge interest in the business community around AV trucking, if you could have trucks in their own laneway, for example, AV freight could get through faster. So I do think that there are multiple good use cases for autonomous vehicle technology, and I think it’s going to explode in the next decade.

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Vanessa Quirk

Vanessa Quirk

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Editorial Manager, @SidewalkLabs. Former @MetropolisMag @ArchDaily @TowCenter @CharlieRose. NYC. Traveler. Singer. Podcast addict. https://vmquirk.contently.com