Getting more autonomous vehicles on the road: Highlights from my conversation with Grayson Brulte

By Shane Tews

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are gaining traction in states where regulations allow. But as AVs enter the roadway, issues like driver safety and data collection are under the spotlight. For both innovators and lawmakers, there are many lessons to be learned about the opportunities and challenges posed by this new technological twist on auto traffic.

Grayson Brulte recently joined “Explain to Shane” to discuss the barriers to getting more AVs on the road, and how both manufacturers and passengers should approach them. Grayson has interviewed a number of state and local officials on his “Road to Autonomy” podcast, and has led successful AV testing programs in both California and Florida. With the future of self-driving cars hanging in the balance, Grayson shared first-hand expertise on AV production and regulation. 

Below is an edited and abridged transcript of our talk. You can listen to this and other episodes of “Explain to Shane” on AEI.org and subscribe via your preferred listening platform. You can also read the full transcript of our discussion here. If you enjoyed this episode, leave us a review, and tell your friends and colleagues to tune in.

Shane Tews: Grayson, tell us what you’ve
been up to in Florida — specifically in a community outside of Orlando known as
“The Villages.” How many autonomous vehicles are in that area right now? 

Grayson
Brulte: The Villages is an incredible place in Central Florida, about 30
minutes outside of Orlando. I’ve had the honor of working with Oliver Cameron,
the former CEO of Voyage, who took me for an AV ride to meet some residents
there. We would stop at a community center, for example, and these individuals
would come out with the biggest smiles, saying, “How can I get this? Can I go
to the bocce game? Can I go to the store? How can I go to the airport? Can I go
to the doctor? Can I go to the hospital?”

There was
this general sense of enthusiasm and love in The Villages for exploring this
new technology, because The Villages is an older retirement community, and they
want to have these experiences. And as they get older, they need the ability to
move around. So as of now, there are six AVs in that area.

How do we manage the challenge of AVs not
seeming reliable or safe? And on the production side, will AVs be profitable?

It’s about
setting expectations. There is no true, full autonomous vehicle on the road
today. There are test vehicles, but there is no true service without a driver
today. But the more these test vehicles can appeal to potential riders — like
people in The Villages — the more people will realize that AVs can in fact be
safe and reliable.

On the
production end, if you’re looking at “robotaxis,” for example, there is no path
to profitability in the traditional sense. You’re going to see profits and
extreme margins on the autonomous trucking side — which is easier from both a
regulatory and technical standpoint — than you are for robotaxis, which will
operate in dense, urban environments that are extremely hard to drive in.

And that’s
where the individuals building the robotaxis don’t understand that it’s not
about who can build the best robotaxi; it’s about the experience. Can you
partner with a retailer — say, Louis Vuitton, for example — so you can get an
exclusive handbag if you ride in that vehicle? Something like that would give
you the ability to expand margins by opening commerce in the vehicle.

The vehicle
itself will not generate money. It will probably lose money for the indefinite
future, but once you lay commerce on top of that, it’s really interesting. The
alcohol industry, for example, is chomping at the bit to be able to sell liquor
and expand margins in fully autonomous cars. So in robotaxis, it’s going to
come down to the experience, and then on the trucking side, it will come down
to expanding the margins and shoring up the supply chain.

As we saw
during COVID-19, the supply chain got hit really hard. But when we have mass
amounts of autonomous trucks on the road, they’re going to shore up the supply
chain and lower the cost of goods. That piece of meat you’re buying might be 10
percent cheaper because the truck was able to transport it more efficiently. There
will be all these great advantages. Not only are these companies going to make
money, but they’re going to have a positive impact on society and help
consumers save money.

How do you work through consumer safety
issues with the people in government?

When I
worked for the City of Beverly Hills, CA’s Autonomous Vehicles Task Force, our
mantra was “no surprises.” We would invite companies to come in and have lunch
with the mayor, have lunch with the city council, explain what they wanted to
do, then get the sign-off from the police chief, the fire chief, the city
manager, and have all the safety plans put in place for the vehicle so everybody
knew what was happening and when.

Then we
would invite the public to be a part of these conversations so that it was not
done in the dark. It was done in an open forum where the public was able to
attend these meetings to learn and ask questions. So it was all about no
surprises and building trust. I think this is the key going forward: letting
ordinary people see the process with their own eyes.

I have bike lanes in front of my house here
in DC. Do we need something similar to help integrate AVs into traffic flow?

No, because
when the vehicles are fully deployed, besides the sensors, you’re never going
to know it’s a self-driving car. It’s going to blend in. Like I’ve said, what
we have to do is go around the country with autonomous vehicles, invite the
public to go for rides, meet the engineers, and let them experience the
technology. I helped do this for the Society of Automotive Engineers, and some
people going for rides were saying, “You’re going to kill me! You’re going to
kill me!” Then afterwards they’d come out and literally give me a hug. One
person said, “I’m not dead. I love you. But the bad news was: This was boring.”
And I said, “Ma’am, that’s exactly what we want.”

Another
issue to consider is data privacy. Apple CEO Tim Cook has done a masterful job
of positioning Apple as the king of protecting user privacy, and somebody is
going to have to do that for the trust and adoption of self-driving cars.

When it comes to data protection and/or
privacy, we always need to be transparent and accountable as to what data is
being collected and where it flows. When we’re talking about self-driving cars
and smart cities, what kind of data is being collected, and how is it involved
in city planning?

Self-driving
cars will gather data through countless cameras and sensors. You’ve paid anywhere
from $50,000 to $140,000 for that vehicle. You own it and you’re gathering
data, and that data is then going back to the company. Why are you not
collecting a royalty?

That’s the
big debate I think will come with data. Here I am, driving this vehicle, gathering
data. I’m helping the manufacturer make a comprehensive map of the city
everywhere I go, but they don’t pay me a royalty. Why not? If you look at
Tesla, you’re spending a lot of money to buy one, then gathering all this data
so they can build up their neural net. Why are you not getting paid per mile
when you’re gathering that data and giving it to the company?

But the
issue is: This will fundamentally disrupt their business models. That’s the
issue. So if you’re buying the product and you own it, well then you should
have the right to opt out of it, okay? Apple’s doing it, so why can’t you do it
in the vehicle? But if you’re in an autonomous vehicle and you’re paying for a
service without “owning” the product per se, that’s a different story as long
as you’re fully transparent about it.

So what’s going to be our first example of
a successful self-driving car campaign here in the US? Who will be the first
one to get this right?

When Project
Titan becomes a reality, based on track record, I’m going to say it’s Apple.
Apple is building the moat around their business and privacy, and they have the
brand. They have the marketing and PR campaign.

My firm,
Brulte & Co., also has several clients that are doing this right because
they’re thinking it through holistically. We didn’t grow up in Detroit. We
didn’t come through the automotive industry, so we tend to look at things
completely differently through a lot of lenses. And so I would say our clients
are looking at it holistically, trying to think through all the problems.

There’s a
huge debate in the analyst community now about how Apple is not going to build
a car in the traditional sense. It’s not going to come off the line in Detroit
or down in Georgia in one of the BMW plants. It’s a platform. And that thing is
going to have services on top of it that will grow their services business.

When Apple
eventually achieves level 4 or level 5 autonomy, they’re going to augment the
glass of the car. So your windshield and side windows are all going to be
augmented. And that’s going to create a whole new line of business for Apple
where if it’s going to be a subscription model, for example, you could say, “Hey,
Siri, take me on a tour of the Washington monuments.” Siri would say, “Okay, Grayson,
would you like that with an in-car audio guide? That will be $9.99.” I say, “Yes,
Siri, thank you.” Apple gets a 30 percent commission, I have a really great
experience, and my daughter can learn about the monuments. That’s absolutely
priceless, and that just becomes another engine of growth for them. And that’s
going to be one of the biggest opportunities in autonomous vehicles: the
augmenting and selling of services.