This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but just about every driverless vehicle deployment has at least one operator in the vehicle. This article highlights how all Uber test vehicles will have “two employees in each autonomous vehicle.” Lyft and Aptiv launched a self-driving program in Las Vegas and, as stated in this article, “a trained operator will be in each car.” Ford is testing vehicles in Miami and has “human back up drivers (see link here). Even Waymo, who took the safety drivers out of their driverless vehicles, decided to “put safety drivers back behind the wheels” and add “co-drivers” in an “effort to keep its safety drivers alert” (see link here). This is the case for just about every driverless vehicle deployment globally. But why?
It is clear the number one reason for safety drivers is safety. These safety drivers are trained to take over control of the vehicle, if required, at any time (see information about GM’s month-long training “driver” program here). Interestingly, AV manufacturers that are requiring two safety drivers cite the main reason for the second driver being oversight of the first driver or for capturing and recording data. Other reasons for a safety driver include passenger comfort, so passengers trying this new form of mobility can ask questions and feel more secure. The final reason is regulatory requirements. Some states are requiring human safety drivers – mostly due to outdated regulations (e.g., New York), while others are requiring a permit for the removal of the driver (e.g., California).
Ironically, Waymo has stated that one of their vehicles would have avoided an accident if the safety driver had left the vehicle in autonomous mode (see link here). This article combined an apology and a commitment to safety with a strong endorsement for their autonomous technology…. Brilliant!
As driverless technology developers advance from SAE Levels 2/3 to 4, with the ultimate goal of being fully driverless, it seems removing the human operator is one of the biggest challenges. This, along with many other factors, suggest that we are quite a few years away from fully autonomous vehicles being able to operate anywhere (Level 5), but please do let me know if you disagree!