The key to getting AVs on the roads? The roads themselves

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Cavnue’s CTO Jaime Waydo about the missing piece in the self-driving puzzle.

By Vanessa Quirk and Eric Jaffe

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 first in a series of three Sidewalk Talk interviews with Cavnue leaders.

Jaime Waydo is an engineer with a mission: to bring mobility to everybody. She has focused her career — including eight years at Google X and Apple — on the one technology she believes will bring that mission to fruition: self-driving cars. But as anyone who’s been following the development of autonomous vehicles knows, it’s a tough problem to crack.

“For eight years, I’ve been trying to solve it with self-driving cars and just watching how hard that problem is,” Waydo told Sidewalk Talk editors Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk in a virtual conversation. It’s why she’s so excited to be at Cavnue, where she can focus on a critical part of the solution that could accelerate the industry’s progress by years: connected infrastructure.

“If we could make the infrastructure slightly smarter then all of a sudden the self-driving cars don’t have to solve everything by themselves,” says Waydo. “And so what I’m trying to do at Cavnue is say, ‘Let’s help you fix the infrastructure. Let’s partner with all of the DOTs that are building these roads, and these signs, and these traffic lights. And let’s put some smarts there.’ And then watch as the autonomous car companies can come in and really transform how cities work much, much sooner.”

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

Vanessa: Today we’re joined by Jaime Waydo, Cavnue’s co-founder and Chief Technology officer. Jaime comes to Cavnue from Apple, where she served as a senior director working in the company’s autonomous driving unit. Before Apple Jaime worked at Google X as a systems engineer on the self-driving car program. Jaime, we’re so glad to talk to you today.

I’m so glad to be here, thank you.

Eric: Jaime, thank you for joining us. I want to hear from you what led you to co-found Cavnue to start this company, what is it about the mission that you think makes this the right moment for this company?

Totally. Well, I started in self-driving cars and I’ve spent about eight years there. And I did that mostly because I want to give mobility to everybody. I really believe, especially in the United States, in order to have a job, in order to really flourish, mobility needs to be a fundamental human right.

And if you look at the urban places across the country, that’s just not the case today. The Ubers and the Lyfts don’t go to those cities because they’re not profitable. And so there’s a need that we need to fill that gap somehow.

This is brought close to my heart because my dad has Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease is a disease that slowly takes away your mobility. And so I’m watching my dad get the disease progressing and realizing that there’s going to come a day where he can no longer drive and he lives in rural Montana. And so if he can’t drive, he can’t go to the grocery store, he can’t go and get a haircut. And so there’s a lot of just fundamental things that I think mobility provides.

For eight years, I’ve been trying to solve it with self-driving cars and just watching how hard that problem is. And when you design a robot that can drive in every driving situation, whether it’s icy roads or it’s a child chasing a ball across the road, or it’s a woman in a wheelchair with a broom chasing a duck, as we saw at Waymo at one point, there’s just so many corner cases to try to program a robot for, and I was like, “Well, how do we solve this in an easier way?”

It really felt to me like if we could make the infrastructure slightly smarter then all of a sudden the self-driving cars don’t have to solve everything by themselves. And so I felt like the way to give mobility to everybody is to make a slightly smarter set of infrastructure, which allows the self-driving cars to deploy sooner, and lets them go to lots of different places. And that in turn will help my father and millions and millions of other people.

Vanessa: For those of us who have been following the development of AVs, it feels like they’ve been around the corner for quite some time, like just five years away and five years away. How close do you think we are to actually having this technology integrated into our cities and on our roads — and what will it take to get us there?

It’s a great question and everybody will tell you a different answer and they’ll probably tell you it’s five years away still. What I will say is that it’s real. Waymo, which is Google’s self-driving car unit, where I used to work, they absolutely have fully driverless cars that take people from point A to point B today in Chandler, Arizona. It’s just that it’s a tiny little neighborhood in the suburbs of Phoenix. And what you want is to be able to say, “No, no, no, this is integrated in everybody’s life. Everybody has access to this.” I think that without a fundamental change in infrastructure that’s 10 years or more out.

And so what I’m trying to do at Cavnue is say, “Let’s help you fix the infrastructure. Let’s partner with all of the DOTs that are building these roads, and these signs, and these traffic lights. And let’s put some smarts there.” And then watch as the autonomous car companies can come in and really transform how cities work much, much sooner.

Eric: So what do you see, Jaime, as the greatest area of need when it comes to those advanced roads that you’re talking about — that infrastructure that’s going to bring the AV dream to life, or at least get us here more quickly? What is the biggest area of need there and how do we get there?

I’ll tell you, I think that we can make the roads better for everybody, not just the autonomous vehicles, and I think that that’s a really important thing.

So for example, as we start to study the roads and study how humans drive on those roads, and what are the different weather conditions, and lighting conditions, and road conditions that create near misses and safety issues on our roads, we can start to dynamically communicate with the drivers, whether they’re a robot or a human and tell them like: “Hey, there’s a deer in the road up ahead, you should slow down!” Or: “If you turn this corner, there’s going to be a puddle. You have a high risk of hydroplaning, you should slow down.”

And so I think that there’s things that we can do very, very near term that starts to make driving easier and safer for everybody.

Vanessa: So there’s this term, “connected infrastructure,” which I think you’re referring to. But how do you describe it to people that may not know what that means — or may not have the tech background that you do? What does connected infrastructure mean?

I haven’t tried this explanation out loud yet. I always know that I’ve gotten the definition and kind of describing what I do right when my mom gets it, as a very smart English teacher, right?

And so, what I would say about connected infrastructure is that it is really a set of technology that’s on the road that can talk to the cloud and run some algorithms that can then help figure out what’s going on, not just for you as a driver, but in the road ahead of you, and the road behind you, for everybody around that’s on that road right now. And then from that, it can start to then say, “Okay, we should drop the speed limit a little bit.” Or, “Oh, it’s actually going well, we can increase the speed a little bit.” Or, “We should get spacing wider apart between cars.” Or, “We can put them closer together and up the efficiency of the road.”

And what that really comes down to for the people who are driving on the roads is the roadways start to become as efficient as possible continuously throughout the commute. One of the things that I think bothers a lot of people when they drive is there’s lots of kinds of traffic jams and you look around and you’re like, “I don’t understand why there’s a traffic jam here.” Well, it’s because somebody was rubbernecking some accident or slammed on the brakes five minutes ago right here and now everybody piled up behind that.

And so, I think there are real world things that we can start to really simplify and mitigate, which means that everybody can have a smoother driving experience, a safer driving experience. And I think that, that in turn means that you get to your destination a little more relaxed and a little bit more ready to kind of be present with whatever the activity is that you were trying to get to.

Eric: I mean, I’ll let your mom be the judge on that, but I thought it was a great explanation. I think you’re going to pass that class. Jaime, so we talked a little bit with Tyler [Duvall, Cavnue’s CEO] and Nicole [Nason, Cavnue’s Chief Safety Officer] about Cavnue’s Michigan project, the 40-mile connected autonomous corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit. We talked about it with them from a pretty high level, but maybe we could talk to you about specifically the technology challenges of that project, what you hope to achieve or prove out really from an engineering perspective in that project that would make it a success.

Yeah. Michigan is a really cool project because it’s a long enough segment of road that you get to try out a lot of different things. There are some intersections, there are some freeway, there are some on-ramps and off-ramps — and all of those things are challenging for self-driving cars. So I think one of the things that’s cool about Michigan is, can we start to simplify some really hard scenarios for self-driving cars in a way that allows them to actually take you from downtown Detroit to the airport or from the airport to downtown Detroit?

And I think that that’s a really cool challenge, and it’s happening at a time in Michigan where they’re actively working on the roads. And so we get to kind of come in and partner with them, while they’re thinking about all the changes they want to make to the roadways and add in the capabilities for them to kind of future-proof for self-driving cars.

I think the other thing that’s really cool is, there’s a lot of automakers in Detroit. We talk about the big three. There’s also a lot of autonomous car companies in Detroit. Waymo is there, Argo is there, there’s probably some others that I’m not aware of, and if they’re listening, like I love you. But I think that it’s just a really interesting place where there’s a lot of activity going on within the car industry, and so we can partner with them and help take their product roadmaps and bring them to fruition sooner. Try all of that in their backyard and then figure out how to scale that and make a roadmap that can continue to deliver to more and more people in the United States and beyond.

Vanessa: You talked a little bit about projecting into the future in your present plans. And when you think ahead, let’s say 20 years time, where do you think the transportation industry will be? What will it look like?

I don’t know yet. I haven’t figured that out. I just was showing my kids the Jetsons over the weekend, and they’re 7 and 10, and I remember watching the Jetsons when I was a kid and just being like, “That’s what the future is going to be like,” and we still haven’t delivered on that. So I thought it was really funny when I showed it to my kids this weekend and they were like, “Mama, can you make that happen at Cavnue?”

Vanessa: That’s really cute. That’s really cute.

So that’s currently what my kids think I do. And so that’s a future that I think they would be stoked if I delivered on.

I think more realistically, some of the constructs of transportation and infrastructure that we deal with today, I think will start to kind of fade away and they’ll modernize. I think you’ll see a lot more wireless contact with the vehicles and the infrastructure. I think you will see a world where driverless cars are intermingled in with human drivers. I think you’ll see a world where you can have driverless shuttle transportation, so we’ll have a lot more public transit that makes sense and can work for lots of people and is affordable. And all of that means that there’s more jobs. There’s a lot more connectivity from people to businesses to being social. And so I think that’s the world that I want to continue to take what we have and just improve it and improve it.

Eric: Jaime, last question here, and we’ll let you go. When you were talking about the ability to potentially give your father greater mobility, as he’s sick, and thinking about the ability to expand access through transportation. At Sidewalk, we think a lot about the way the future of technology will impact people’s lives, exactly like the kinds of stories you’re telling. What do you think Cavnue’s greatest potential is in terms of the ability to improve the lives of people in cities?

Yeah. I think that we can transform cities. I think that we can talk about the safety statistics and the fact that 94 percent of accidents on the road are a human driver accident. And when you slice that further and you say, “Well, how much of that can I solve with smart infrastructure solutions?” It’s over half. And so I think there’s a lot that we can do to make the roads safer.

A statistic we used to use at Waymo is the people who die in roadway traffic accidents per day is the equivalent of a 737 dropping out of the sky every day, and that’s in the U.S. alone. Hundreds of people die on our roads every day. And so I think there’s a real capability to make the roads safer, and I’m excited about that.

I think that there’s a reality right now that there’s a lot of time that’s wasted in people’s commutes and in driving, and it’s just not an enjoyable time. The average human commute in the U.S. is about 50 minutes. That’s almost an hour a day that you’re spending kind of wasting in traffic. And if you get that time back — which Covid has kind of shown us what it is to get that time back, right? Then what do you do with it? Do you exercise more? Do you connect with your family more? Do you learn a new hobby? I learned to draw during Covid. And so, I think that there’s just a lot that people can do with an extra hour per day in their life.

I also think driving is exhausting. And so I think that a lot of what we can provide is just kind of simplifying the driving tasks so that the mental load is lower. I think that there’s a lot that’ll help there.

And then, I bring it back to my dad and millions like him who don’t have mobility, who — just getting where you want to go, just running errands is so, so hard. And I think that as we improve infrastructure and we allow more and more cars at scale to be able to be autonomous or semi-autonomous, that really opens up possibilities for people to get where they want to go. And that’s the most important thing to me.