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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Robot cars spur new class of human driver

Job boards are filled with listings for safety drivers. The staffing agency Adecco, which works with Alphabet's Waymo, has openings for entry-level operators

Safety driver Jim O'Donoghue. Autonomous vehicles still need human escorts but the job is said to be pretty boring. Frank Augstein/AP
Safety driver Jim O'Donoghue. Autonomous vehicles still need human escorts but the job is said to be pretty boring. Frank Augstein/AP

This month’s fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber 4x4 in Arizona drew attention to a new employment category that barely existed a few years ago: the autonomous vehicle safety driver.

In Arizona alone, more than 600 autonomous vehicles are being tested on public roads. Car and technology companies need to rack up real-world miles to improve their self-driving systems. Most of those vehicles need one, often more, people in the car to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Safety drivers typically operate robotic vehicles in eight-hour shifts and provide critical feedback to engineers. But qualifications, training and practices vary widely. Most companies, including Zoox and Argo AI, have two people in the car at all times: one ready to take the wheel and the other monitoring code. Uber only had one in a vehicle that hit and killed a pedestrian a couple of weeks ago.

“For more hardcore testing, it’s common to see two or even three operators in a vehicle,” said Richard Wallace, director of the transportation systems analysis group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It’s clearly cheaper to have just one person. It’s a fairly dull job most of the time. This crash may get companies to take a look at how these safety drivers are trained.”

State regulations also vary. In Arizona, autonomous vehicle safety drivers are only required to have a valid driver’s licence, just like any other driver on the road. In California, the drivers must have completed a test driver training programme by the company they work for, not have any at-fault collisions resulting in injury or death on their driving record and be clean of any citations for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in the last decade.

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The job itself can be tedious. “It’s actually really boring to drive a vehicle that you’re not driving,” said Eran Sandhaus, a former vice president at Aptiv who oversaw autonomous driving and is now an adviser to mobility start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Rafael Vasquez, the safety driver in the Uber Technologies vehicle involved in this month’s collision, came under public scrutiny after police released a video of the incident. Mr Vasquez appears to look down at something off-camera in the moments before impact.

Uber grounded all of its test vehicles while the US transportation officials investigate the crash. Toyota temporarily halted tests of its “Chauffeur” system in Michigan and California, saying the Uber incident “may have an emotional effect on our test drivers”.

Job boards are filled with listings for safety drivers. The staffing agency Adecco, which works with Alphabet's Waymo, has openings for entry-level operators, with pay listed at $20 an hour. Primary duties include: operate vehicle five days a week; ability to work evenings and/or weekends; monitor software systems with constant focus; provide concise written and oral feedback to engineering teams; and complete daily reports.

The Toyota Research Institute’s vehicle operations specialist must “consistently demonstrate situational awareness, an understanding of the technology in his/her care, and a willingness to constantly adjust to changes in the environment”.

Paid training is provided, with employment contingent upon successful completion of training. The goal is to eliminate these jobs eventually, when cars can be trusted to drive themselves in any situation.

The Uber incident suggests that day is still a ways off.