Uber Crash Highlights the Odd Job of Autonomous Vehicle Safety Driver

By Dana Hull, Mark Bergen and Gabrielle Coppola | March 27, 2018

This week’s fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber SUV 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. Auto and technology companies need to rack up real-world miles to improve their self-driving systems. Most of those vehicles need one, or 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 Inc. 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 on Sunday.

“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 license, just like any other driver on the road. In California, the drivers must have completed a test driver training program 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.

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 Plc who oversaw autonomous driving and is now an adviser to mobility startups in Silicon Valley.

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

Uber grounded all of its test vehicles while the U.S. 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.”

Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo has yet to comment on its plans since the Uber collision Sunday night, but the tech giant’s Pacifica minivans remain on the road in Arizona, according to Kevin Hartke, a Chandler, Arizona, city councilman. Waymo was the first to start operating autonomous cars without safety drivers in Arizona last year, though the car Hartke saw this week had a person behind the wheel.

Job boards are filled with listings for safety drivers. The staffing agency Adecco, which works with 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.

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