A few days ago I had the opportunity to have a beer with a former Waymo safety driver and get some insights in what being a safety driver encompasses.
A safety driver is today mandatory in most states that allow testing of autonomous vehicles. Their task is to take control in case the vehicle makes an error or is unable to complete an operation.
The person I met with was an engineer, who had worked for a few months this year as a Waymo safety driver at their headquarter in Mountain View. After a multi-day training, where they became familiar with the vehicles and the policies, they were released on the expensive experimental vehicles. Today Waymo alone has over 600 of them in operation.
The drivers don’t really get a detailed task list, they are just being asked to drive within the geofenced area in the Bay Area. Occasionally, they are asked to do mapping drives. The vehicles can double as mapping cars.
Some of the difficulties that the cars have are so-called unprotected left turns at intersections where there are no traffic lights of stop signs, and drives on parking lots at shopping centers. Missing clear traffic rules, the back and forth of parking vehicles, the pedestrians crossing on the lots, and objects such as shopping carts are a challenge. Sometimes the intent of other participants is difficult to guess. Often a car is idling, only to make a sudden move once a parking space opened.
Generally he felt very safe in the car. Also the way the car drove was very comfortable for passengers – which most of the time he was himself. He also learned better driving behavior from the car. Today he is trying to always use turn signals and pay more attention to traffic.
He also mentioned that interfering with the car controls is often dependent on the character of the safety driver. Some are more anxious and tend to take control more often, thinking that the car is making a mistake, which ist often not true. Other safety drivers are more patient or relaxed. Each disengagement (taking over control) is tagged in the system and evaluated if this was a justified disengagement or not.
What he noticed during his time as a safety driver is how many other drivers (those in the manual cars) looked bored or even angry. He could observe that, because the Waymo took care of paying attention to traffic. He wondered whether people are really aware how much life time they waste on driving and if they couldn’t use that time better. So much about the favorite argument of “but I like driving.” The facial expression tells a different story.
What he was also impressed with were the colleagues in the development team. He found it almost intimidating how smart they were.
Many safety drivers also move between companies, and get a good insight in how good the different self-driving technologies are. And for some being a safety driver can also mean the begin of a career. If you are an engineer and worked as a safety driver in one company, another one may find this experience and your background so interesting that you can advance to become a test engineer, designing and supervising the tests.
Are you a safety driver and willing to talk about your own experiences? Please contact me and send me an Email (I’ll keep that confidential).
This article was also published in German.