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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If you can pass a driver's test, you can get an operator's license. But there is no corresponding test for autonomous vehicles.

Why it matters: Unless Congress acts, it'll be up to tech companies and carmakers — not the government — to determine when self-driving cars are safe for public roads. "Just trust us" isn't a viable answer to earn public acceptance.

What's happening: One self-driving tech company, Aurora, argues that publicly sharing its work — through a series of layered safety claims along with detailed evidence to back up each one — is the best way to determine when the technology is safe.

  • This "safety case framework" is a structured argument that gives engineers a roadmap for developing the tech while also offering much-needed transparency to the public.
  • "It's like saying you're going to climb a mountain, but you don’t know how high the mountain is or how many steps it will take to get there," explains Nat Beuse, Aurora's vice president of safety. "The safety case tells us how high it is and how many steps it will take to make the ascent."

Between the lines: The approach is also more meaningful, Beuse says, than other proxies for AV safety, such as counting how many times a backup safety driver had to take control during testing (California's so-called "disengagement reports") or how many millions of road miles an AV developer logs (the basis for Waymo's leadership claim).

Of note: Beuse, a former official at the U.S. Department of Transportation, was instrumental in establishing a new approach toward safety at Uber's autonomous vehicle unit after one of its self-driving cars killed a pedestrian in 2018.

  • Aurora acquired the Uber unit in January.
  • Other industries, including aviation, nuclear and medical, also use a safety case-based approach to assess their performance.

Go deeper: Explore Aurora's interactive framework here and an explanation of how it works here.

Go deeper

Driverless trucks are making daily runs for Walmart

Gatik's technology enables this Walmart truck to drive itself. Photo: Gatik

The country's first driverless trucks are now operating on local roads in Bentonville, Arkansas, shuttling merchandise for Walmart from a warehouse to a nearby store.

What's new: Walmart and its self-driving technology partner, Gatik, said today they had pulled the human safety driver from autonomous delivery trucks on a seven-mile route in the retailer's hometown — an industry first.

The big picture: Short urban routes are becoming more common as retailers like Walmart turn to hub-and-spoke distribution to fulfill growing online orders for same-day store pickup. Retailers need to be able to quickly move goods from micro-fulfillment centers to nearby stores.

  • Gatik has been developing self-driving technology incrementally, starting with this so-called "middle mile" of the supply chain — short, fixed, repeatable delivery routes.

What they're saying: “This milestone signifies a revolutionary breakthrough for the autonomous trucking industry,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Gatik, based in Mountain View, California.

  • “Our deployment in Bentonville is not a one-time demonstration. These are frequent, revenue-generating, daily runs that our trucks are completing safely in a range of conditions on public roads."

Details: Four-year-old Gatik has been working with Walmart on middle-mile logistics in Bentonville since 2019, initially with both a safety driver and a second operator in the passenger seat.

  • Now, with permission from the Arkansas State Highway Commission, the trucks are operating with nobody behind the wheel.
  • For now, the passenger still rides along as an observer, with limited access to the controls, to stop the truck in an emergency. A chase vehicle follows behind to observe as well.
  • The trucks move customer orders from a Walmart "dark store" (or micro-fulfillment center) to a nearby Neighborhood Market.
  • The initial driving route was selected to minimize risk: It avoids schools and hospitals, and favors right turns over unprotected left turns— a common practice among UPS drivers too.

The bottom line: Autonomous trucks are beginning to roll out.

Walmart route in NW Arkansas goes driverless

Gatik's technology enables this Walmart truck to drive itself. Photo: Gatik

The country's first driverless trucks are operating on roads in Bentonville. They are shuttling merchandise for Walmart from a warehouse to a Neighborhood Market.

What's new: Walmart and its self-driving technology partner, Gatik, said today they had pulled the human safety driver from autonomous delivery trucks on a 7-mile route in the retailer's hometown — an industry first, writes Axios' Joann Muller.

Starbucks drops worker vaccine mandate after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks announced in a memo to employees Tuesday that it has dropped plans to implement a vaccine mandate for all U.S. workers, AP reported on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.