A secret weapon for self-driving car startups: humans

FREMONT, Calif., Aug. 23 (Reuters) – Autonomous startups like Cruise and Pony.ai have started testing their driverless cars in parts of California over the past year, with an additional feature: human operators.

Although there is no driver behind the wheel, the passenger seat is occupied by a security operator who “has a red button that can stop the vehicle in case something happens,” the CEO told Reuters. from Pony.ai, James Peng.

The operator will be phased out next year when Pony.ai, whose investors include Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), plans to roll out its driverless vehicles in parts of California. Nonetheless, a remote operator will monitor the vehicles and provide advice when the vehicles encounter problems, Peng said.

Alphabet Inc’s Waymo (GOOGL.O) is keeping staff wearing fluorescent yellow vests ready to provide roadside assistance to their automated minivans in Phoenix, according to videos and one of its enthusiasts, Joel Johnson, who does so. was a witness.

Cruise, majority owned by General Motors Co (GM.N), began operating five driverless vehicles in San Francisco on the night of October 2020 with a human in the front seat. The warden has “the ability to stop the vehicle at any time during the journey,” said a spokesperson for Cruise.

“Cruise sees the development of autonomous vehicles not only as a technological race, but also as a race for confidence,” added the spokesperson. “That being said, we keep humans apprised of driverless vehicle testing not only as a means of safe development, but also, beyond, to build public confidence.”

South Korean auto giant Hyundai Motor Group has invested in remote operation start-up Ottopia, which will provide remote assistance to the robot taxi fleets of Hyundai’s self-driving car joint venture, Motional.


The continued human presence in what are supposed to be software-driven automated vehicles underscores the challenges facing the automated vehicle industry, which has consumed billions of dollars in investor capital over the past decade.

With no end in view of the technical and regulatory hurdles to self-service driverless robotaxis, some stand-alone businesses are accepting the need for human gatekeepers and downsizing their ambitions so they can start generating revenue in the near future, according to interviews. with investors and startup executives.

Even Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), which recently launched a new trial version of what it calls “Full Self-Driving” software, said in a message to owners that drivers should “be ready to act. immediately, especially in blind spots, crossing intersections and in tight driving situations. U.S. safety regulators have launched a formal investigation into the automaker’s autopilot driver assistance system following a series of fatal crashes. Read more


Waymo has been developing autonomous driving technology for over a decade and launched the first commercial robotaxis in Phoenix in 2018. But the successor to Google’s pioneering autonomous car project is still keeping humans in the loop.

A vehicle equipped with Pony.ai’s autonomous driving technology is parked at the company’s offices in Fremont, California, United States, June 17, 2021. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino / File Photo

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Waymo told Reuters he leads four teams monitoring and assisting the fleet. Tasks range from answering riders’ questions to providing a “second pair of eyes” remotely in sensitive situations such as road closures. One of its teams provides roadside assistance to respond to collisions and other incidents.

The teams “work together to orchestrate the operation of our fully autonomous fleet throughout the day,” Nathaniel Fairfield, software engineer at Waymo, said in a statement to Reuters.

Waymo does not operate vehicles by remote control, he said.

“We don’t use a remote control jack or ‘joystick’ because we don’t think remote humans actually add to the security,” he said, citing potential wireless connection issues.

Waymo has applied for a permit to start autonomous commercial vehicle operations in San Francisco with safety drivers as a first step. The company relies on an army of vehicle operators to speed up testing in the dense and complex urban environment. Read more

A former Waymo operator who took part in the San Francisco tests this year said he had to “disengage” and intervene about 30 times a day in cases where the car did not stop quickly enough for red lights or traffic lights. vehicles ahead that slow down or stop suddenly.

“You’re on your guard… There are times when (you think) ‘Oh, I didn’t predict this behavior at all.’ “This behavior usually does not happen,” said the senior security operator, who requested anonymity for reasons of confidentiality.

Waymo publicly reported 21 disengages out of 628,838.5 miles (1.01 million km) of driving in 2020.


Regulators also keep humans involved in automated vehicles. California laws “require a two-way communications link that allows the manufacturer to continuously monitor the location / condition of the vehicle (driverless),” the California Department of Motor Vehicles said in a statement to Reuters.

Other robotaxi companies use remote control as a way to get vehicles on the road.

In Las Vegas, startup Halo lets customers call a driverless car, which is driven by a remote human operator over fast, fifth-generation wireless networks operated by T-Mobile US Inc (TMUS.O).

“Just a few years ago, remote human assistance was a dirty little secret in this space,” said Elliot Katz, co-founder of teleoperation company Phantom Auto. “Hardly anyone talked about it publicly because there was still this facade that these vehicles were just going to be able to drive independently, wherever they needed to go and do whatever a human driver would do.”

He added: “Everyone now knows that will not be the case.”

Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin in Fremont, California and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco Editing by Joe White and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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