What's that about working as a safety driver in a self-driving car?

Joe VanOflen, Operations Manager at drive.ai

We spend a good part of our life commuting, but with autonomous cars, we could occupy this time in an unlimited way. You can finish the job, shoot a movie or, if the windows of the car are digital screens, make a virtual tour of the French countryside.

But before handing over the keys, we have to test the technology. In June 2018, I started as a "Safety Driver" at the Autonomous Drive.ai Automobile Company, driving our passenger shuttles in Frisco, Texas. After driving the vehicle on the ground, I pressed a button to activate the range. In case I have to take over, I did not want to waste a second getting into control, so I kept a hand on the wheel and I stepped on the pedals, imitating manual driving. They were moving as they would if I used them – the first-time passengers were looking at me to see if I was touching anything.

The runners also expressed surprise at the AI's caution. In fact, the most common reason I had to take over was that other human drivers became impatient – for example, waiting for the autonomous vehicle to slowly cross several lanes at rush hour. In these cases, we will release our autonomy and switch to human mode as a courtesy to other drivers on the road.

People get on the shuttle with all sorts of extravagant expectations, but after their first outing – or sometimes even halfway through – they realize it's really another bus ride. Then they usually go back to their activities. In most cases, this means that they are buried in their cell phone.

As told to Rob Verger

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 edition of Transportation Popular science.