Sep. 3, 2020 - 7 min read

Aurora Voices with Luis Velez

Aurora Voices with Luis Velez

Meet Luis Velez, one of our first Truck Operations Specialists. Luis hails from Colombia and whole-heartedly believes that self-driving technology will be a catalyst for positive change for many, especially truck drivers.

At the heart of Aurora’s technology and mission are the individuals behind it. In our series, Aurora Voices, we share the unique voices and stories of the people of Aurora, celebrating our backgrounds as well as personal and professional experiences.

Luis Velez is a Truck Operations Specialist at Aurora, where he advises teams on how to safely build and test a self-driving truck. Luis has over 20 years of experience as a commercial truck driver and has spent the last several years as a safety driver at various self-driving companies. When he’s not busy making self-driving a reality, he’s a certified Holistic Life-Health Coach, helping people find and live their best lives.

Tell us about your background and how you became a truck driver?

Though I’ve been a truck driver for almost 18 years, I’m not what you would call a “typical” truck driver. I was born in Colombia and moved to Florida to pursue an education in industrial engineering and then got my MBA from the University of Miami. Upon finishing my MBA and the birth of my first child, I decided to go into the transportation and logistics industry and opened my own trucking company. At times, I was managing up to 45 drivers, so I acquired an incredible amount of logistics and supply chain management experience. It was also a constant challenge to find reliable drivers, so I became a truck driver myself and learned the business from the bottom up. After a few other jobs in the logistics space, I ended up moving to California — for love, of all reasons — and found myself in the middle of the self-driving scene.

How time flies. On the left, Luis is with his newborn son in the late ’80s. On the right, he’s with both his sons for his youngest son’s graduation from college.

You’ve been a truck driver for a long time. What are some things you love about the job?

You can’t be a truck driver if you don’t love to drive and meet interesting people. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to travel — I’ve seen the most amazing sunrises and sunsets you can imagine. There’s also a sense of control you have over your destiny and it can be a simple and grounded lifestyle. I have a philosophy to do things the right way, so being able to make customers happy when you deliver goods on time is rewarding. Ultimately, if I’m able to do that punctually and safely, I am proud of my day.

Winters in Wisconsin can be interesting and challenging for a class 8 truck!

What are some of the challenges of being a truck driver?

Unfortunately, the negatives are pretty sizable. You are away from your family, friends, and life so you can feel isolated. It’s also challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle on the road — the food is always bad! The lengthy downtime between loads and the difficulty finding places to stop at the end of your shift when rest and truck stops are full (and you’re exhausted) are also big pain points. Another unfortunate aspect is the stigma that comes with being a truck driver — people may not respect your intelligence or experience.

What are you currently working on at Aurora?

I’m collaborating with and advising numerous technical and product teams on a driver’s manual for integrating the Aurora Driver into heavy-duty trucks. After we’ve completed initial testing of the software, sensors, components, etc., I’ll be headed to our new Dallas location where I’ll be one of our first safety drivers to collect data and test our technology on public roads. I’m also being trained on how to safely take over driving the truck should something unexpected happen in autonomy.

Aurora Self-Driving Truck

After a long, but fun day of testing the Aurora Driver in our class 8 truck at the track.

What are some of the nuances or challenges we have to account for when building a self-driving truck?

Though our overall progress on the Aurora Driver is additive and helpful for all operational driving domains, trucks present their own challenges. For example, a class 8 truck with a trailer is nearly 100 feet long, so traditional routing has to be modified so that the truck is not routed through dense urban streets. In addition, our motion planning team has to account for the well-known effect of “off-tracking,” which is when the trailer does not follow the exact path the cab takes when it makes a turn. From a hardware perspective, the placement of the sensors is particularly critical as they have to withstand the vibration caused by the weight, dynamics, and powerful engine in a truck. All of these challenges come with a lot of testing to ensure we’ve got it right, like the speed bump test (video below), which we recently successfully conducted to ensure our sensors can withstand stress.

In your opinion, what is going to be the biggest challenge and opportunity for self-driving trucks?

I see our biggest challenge as our biggest opportunity in that as we develop our technology, we have to be proactive in how we tell the story about the future. It’s our responsibility to not only make the safest technology possible, but to educate truck drivers and the public about the possibilities self-driving will generate. Automation is going to breed a new generation of truck drivers because they’ll be able to up-level their skills. The dream for most of the drivers I’ve met is to go home every night to their loved ones. If we’re able to train and give these folks new jobs in monitoring networks and teleassist, they’ll have local jobs and can pursue a normal and healthy life.

Why are you so passionate about developing this technology?

What we’re creating will help humanity in so many ways, regardless of race, culture, and gender. More importantly, if we don’t see this through, someone else will. And, from what I’ve seen, Aurora has the safest approach in the industry. I believe that when you generate positive energy, you create a thousand new possibilities. At Aurora, we’re putting our positive energy into autonomous technology to save lives, address the truck driver shortage, move goods quickly and safely to people, reduce inefficiencies for fleets and shippers, and create new possibilities for a class of marginalized workers. I can’t imagine anything more equitable to a civilization where benefits can be enjoyed ubiquitously.

What is the best thing about working at Aurora?

Aurora’s transparency at the leadership level is impressive. I also appreciate our values, vision, and the support we have from our investors to do this right. This is a long game so it helps that Aurora is a very mission-driven company and everyone I’ve crossed paths with so far is committed to the mission. We also prioritize safety (it’s part of our mission), which is huge. I’ve seen other companies pursue “hacking” strategies, and they tend to snowball and do not pay off. There’s also this feeling that we’re a legitimate player in this space, but we’re nimble and flexible enough where people, even me, can contribute and make a big difference.

When you’re not at the forefront of making self-driving trucks a reality, I understand that you’re a certified Holistic Life-Health Coach. Can you tell us why you decided to pursue this lifestyle?

I decided to become a certified holistic life-health coach because it presented a path toward a holistic approach in how I think, feel, and act. Life comes with a lot of stress and challenges, especially in logistics and trucking, and having this mentality has enabled me to feel grounded and connected throughout my day. Another reason why I like Aurora so much is that we try to do things right the first time. This approach resonates with my beliefs around a sustainable and authentic wellbeing and lifestyle that I’ve created for myself and that I seek to teach to others who are so inclined.

Luis’ positivity shines through no matter what he’s doing.

How is working at a technology company, like Aurora, different from working as a truck driver?

As a former truck driver, working for a tech company like Aurora is such an uplifting experience. Every day I have the opportunity to use my legacy trucking “know-how” to help build a new technology that will save lives. As mentioned, I whole-heartedly believe in the benefits of self-driving, so I’m elated to be working toward a safer and more efficient way to move people and goods. As a truck driver, you only get paid “by the mile” after possibly waiting hours to pick up a load and are basically on call 24 hours a day — so the pay-off can require a lot of effort and stress that doesn’t seem worth it. At Aurora, I get to go home every day and feel the impact I’m making on the technology we’re building.

If you feel inspired by what you just read, we’re hiring at all levels, including commercial vehicle operators, like Luis! Visit our Careers page to learn more about positions at all of our locations.

Aurora Team
Aurora delivers the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly

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