Interviews, Smart Mobility

Aurora’s approach to organizational safety for AV developers | OSS.5 USA 2022

Chris Mullen, Senior Director of Organizational Safety at Aurora

we.CONECT spoke to Chris Mullen, Senior Director of Organizational Safety at Aurora, who is a speaker at the 4th OSS.5 USA 2022.

we.CONECT: Hi, Chris, we are thrilled to have you as our speaker at the 4th OSS.5 USA 2022, and we’d like to ask you a few questions about Aurora’s approach to safety. Let’s start with your role: you are Senior Director of Organizational Safety at Aurora; tell us why you are passionate about your job.

Chris Mullen: My passion for safety has been the driving force behind my entire career. I’ve held roles in crashworthiness, biomechanics research, auto and building loss mitigation and prevention, vehicle repairability, safety standards and analysis, and now, organizational approach to safety for autonomous technology. So in some ways, my whole professional life has been leading up to this point where I must bring to bear all of that experience to help do something amazing. I believe that our technology has the potential to completely change lives – but doing so requires dedication to delivering this technology safely. In my current role, this means ensuring that the organization as a whole has an enterprise approach to managing safety risk, safety culture, operational safety and safety assurance. Every day I am more and more excited as we get closer and closer to realizing broad, safe deployment of this amazing technology.

we.CONECT: At OSS.5 USA, your session is titled “Evolving your Safety Management System: An approach to maturing organizational safety for AV developers”. What would be the main message of your talk?

Chris Mullen: I spoke at OSS.5 last year about foundational approaches to establishing an SMS. This year, I’ll build upon that content by discussing how we are maturing our thinking on our approach to SMS beyond what we discussed last year; in particular, how we have continued realizing the three concepts of our Safety Playbook, including a Safety Case Framework and expanded features of our Safety Management System.

we.CONECT: What are the most important drivers for achieving organizational safety, in your opinion? What stands in the way?

Chris Mullen: The keys to implementing a successful approach to organizational safety start with talking the talk, and then walking the walk. First, top level commitment to safety is critical; without it, the rest of the organization understands neither the priority nor the dedication of the organization to safety. Further, safety is owned by everyone and everyone has a responsibility for safety – believing or expecting that only a handful of people will “handle the safety stuff” is where an organization can miss critical safety issues that materialize into safety events. So educate, train, and reinforce safety principles and expectations for all employees on their responsibility for safety. On the foundation of this strong safety culture management comes the implementation of policies, procedures, and practices that advance safety every day; for example, the establishment of Process/Owners, Accountable Executive, and a Head of Safety with frameworks for safety-related, risk-based decision making.

we.CONECT: Looking back to the initial planning of your project, the initial phase and the first PoC – where do you see particular success in achieving the project goals?

Chris Mullen: First, it’s best to consider Safety Management as an ongoing and deeply rooted charter for our company, that not only has associated claims within the safety case, but that also truly lives our safety case principle of “Continuously Improving”. So, it’s not a project so much as a living program that is constantly managed and enhanced. Particular early success came in quickly rolling out some flagship elements that gave employees a voice and role in safety, such as a safety concern reporting and management program and initial efforts to measure and then manage safety culture. This allowed us to showcase the value of our talent developing and managing these efforts and begin building a brand that helped to successfully implement further efforts to continuously improve the organizational approach to safety management. Essentially, focusing first on the things that were easy to implement, and deriving the most value out of them, then celebrating the successes as an organization while we solve longer term, more complex problems.

we.CONECT: What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Chris Mullen: The biggest ongoing challenge is balancing what we want to see based on historical best practice with adapting a version that works best for the space and the company. Some elements, as we discussed at OSS.5 last year, are fundamental and considered foundational elements that should be implemented a certain way. But other elements can and should adapt to enable decision-making to support development and deployment in a “language” that the company understands and can use. We continue to address that challenge through making sure we clearly define intention and stick to safety principles; but also understand the needs of different groups within the company and how we can best enable mission progress safely.

we.CONECT: You are a returning speaker to our events. What are your most important expectations for this year’s OSS.5 USA?

Chris Mullen: I’m really looking forward to attending this year’s event in person; so my expectations are rather simple in getting a chance to hold discussions, exchange ideas, and meet new colleagues …in 3D (so to speak)! Collaboration is our best chance as an industry of achieving safe deployment of this technology; and we have missed seeing each other for the last few years.

we.CONECT: Which topics are particularly important for you in the context of the conference and why?

Chris Mullen: Perhaps biased and totally obvious, but I’m encouraged to see so many talks on the topics of Safety Management Systems and safety cases this year; and I’m looking forward to a healthy exchange of ideas and best practices with the speakers and attendees.

we.CONECT: Thank you for your time, Chris, we are looking forward to your session at the conference! 

Chris Mullen is presenting a case study Evolving your Safety Management System: An approach to maturing organizational safety for AV developers on June 20 at 11:45 AM.

Here is what she’ll be talking about:

Last year, we presented to this audience the principled elements of a Safety Management System that should be considered foundational investments in safety as companies approach the development and deployment of autonomous systems. Now, we would like to take the dialogue a step further, showing how a company can advance from a foundational to an evolving SMS.


  • Manage the implementation of your SMS; plan the work, and work the plan!
  • Taking a holistic view requires deliberate scoping and integration
  • The role of SMS in product development
  • Communicate, communicate, then communicate again


OSS.5 USA is the leading technical event bringing together all stakeholders who play an active role in the achievement of high-level functional, system and operational safety for highly to fully automated driving. The fourth edition of the event will provide you with precise insights into new technical innovations, the latest updates to standards, and pressing challenges regarding operational and functional safe systems in Level 4 & 5 vehicles.

The 5th Auto.Ai USA, The No. 1 event on functional, system, and operational safety for highly to fully automated vehicles in the USA, is taking place live in San Francisco and online on June 23 – 25, 2024.

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