Successful AV Tests Demand Top-Notch Drivers, Startup Says

Until autonomous vehicles can drive themselves, the drivers who test them will be a critical part of the development process that fledgling AV companies neglect at their peril.

At the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco this week, self-driving truck startup Embark Trucks outlined rigorous training, testing and monitoring processes it uses to make sure its test drivers are qualified.

Embark CEO and Co-Founder Alex Rodrigues put those efforts out as best practices for other AV companies.

“Drivers should not be thought of as accessories,” he said.

Though self-driving cars and trucks are intended to improve road safety, they are under the microscope until the public has faith the new technology doesn’t make driving more dangerous.

Most AVs in testing on public roads still have a driver behind the wheel to monitor the performance of self-driving systems and take over if they fail. That role took center stage earlier this year in the investigation of the most devastating incident yet for the closely watched AV industry. Federal investigators found that the backup driver in the Uber prototype that killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March wasn’t watching the road and didn’t start to brake until just after impact.

Drivers of test vehicles that aren’t necessarily ready for autonomous operation need to be even more qualified than the average driver, Rodrigues told the conference. Some attendees echoed his views.

Embark, which is currently testing its self-driving trucks on limited-access highways in the US, seeks the most qualified commercial truck drivers for those tests and puts them through extensive training and testing, he said.

Embark selects test drivers with about 1 million miles each of driving experience, Rodrigues said. Then it puts them through classroom, closed track and public-road training, including exercises where they’re faced with worst-case failures like an unplugged electrical connection to the AV system.

Tests are similar to DMV licensing exams, with an evaluator in the truck checking whether the driver does things like over-the-shoulder checks when the automated truck gets ready to change lanes.

Once drivers are on the road, Embark uses a stricter hours-of-service standard than the federal government to prevent fatigue, Rodrigues said. Automation experts say operators can get distracted or drowsy more quickly with systems that do more of the work themselves.

The company’s onboard systems constantly monitor whether drivers are both looking at the road and keeping their hands on the steering wheel, warns them after five seconds and eventually pulls the truck over if they don’t re-engage. Embark’s testing is all done with hands constantly resting on the wheel, he said.

“It doesn’t look as great for demos,” Rodrigues said. “However, it decreases their reaction time by a second.”

Onboard cameras inside and outside each driver’s cab constantly capture video, and performance reviewers watch at random and for specific safety events. This helps to catch shortcomings in the self-driving system that can be corrected.

Embark’s policies and processes are good ones, said a chief engineer for new technology at a global logistics company, who saw the presentation. Another important practice is to regularly solicit feedback from drivers, who have insights from real-world driving that sometimes correct engineers’ expectations, he said.

Most companies testing AVs use similar methods to ensure the quality of their drivers, said Steven Shladover, program leader for mobility at California PATH, a transportation research organization at UC Berkeley.

Consistency in requirements is important if states want to guide AV companies toward good driver practices, said Catherine Curtis, director of vehicle programs at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Her organization advocates that states that require permits for AV testing should ask applicants to give information on their training processes and driver background checks.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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