Video released this week of a fatal crash involving an Uber-owned self-driving car showed the vehicle’s safety operator was distracted in the moments prior to the crash. Safety drivers are a common feature of self-driving car tests conducted on public roads today, but the fact Uber had an autonomous car deployed with a solo operator appears to be unorthodox.
The autonomous driving industry is still in its infancy, therefore companies deploy safety drivers to resume control of the wheel in case the technology fails. With all the redundancies in place to detect potential hazards in the road, a safety driver essentially serves as the last line of defense.
A 22-second clip released Wednesday night by Tempe police shows the operator of the Uber vehicle, identified as 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, repeatedly looking away from the road, up to the moment before the car strikes the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
It isn’t yet known what Vasquez was distracted by. Typically, autonomous cars have a monitor in the center dash that displays what the car “sees” through its suite of autonomous tech, so it’s possible Vasquez was focused on that prior to the collision.
But the majority of companies testing autonomous cars on the road today rely on a team of two—one safety operator at the wheel, paying attention to the road; another that monitors and logs what’s revealed through the autonomous tech.
On Thursday, Jalopnik contacted all 52 companies listed on the California DMV’s website as having a permit to conduct self-driving car tests in the state, and that was the consensus based on those who responded to our inquiries about policies for safety operators.
Only Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, said it uses single drivers when testing on public roads—but that policy wasn’t enacted until 2015, six years after the company first started developing self-driving car technology and had logged one million miles on the road.
Waymo told Jalopnik it only uses a single driver in cases when the vehicle being driven uses validated hardware and software. When it comes to new test vehicles testing out new hardware or software, drivers, in new cities or road types, Waymo said its policy is to have two test drivers in the vehicle. (Waymo launched a fully-driverless car pilot program last year that’s ongoing in the Phoenix area.)
Alan Hall, Ford’s communications manager for autonomous cars, told Jalopnik the automaker—and its self-driving car unit Argo AI—utilizes a two-person safety operation team in test vehicles.
“The operator in the driver position monitors the road ahead,” Hall said. “The passenger safety operator monitors performance of the self-driving system through a laptop computer.”
Toyota has a similar arrangement.
John Hanson, director of communications and public affairs for the Toyota Research Institute, said in an email that it currently uses both a safety driver at the wheel and an operator who monitors a display of what the test vehicle sees.
“The two are in constant verbal communication,” Hanson said.
Nissan, which logged about 5,000 miles of self-driving car tests on California roads last year, also said it uses two safety operators.
“Nissan’s autonomous vehicle testing includes a safety driver at the controls trained to be constantly engaged with the vehicle and a test engineer in the passenger or rear seat to monitor and operate the system,” said Chris Keeffe, Nissan’s senior manager of corporate communications.
It’s hard to say why Uber deployed a test car with only one operator in the car that struck Herzberg. The ride-hailing company has been racing to advance its self-driving car program, following a rocky 2017 that was hindered by a major lawsuit involving Waymo. One of Uber’s biggest costs is paying contracted drivers, and it hasn’t shied away from the fact that it believes removing them from the equation would be good for business.
The company hinted earlier this year that it believed Uber’s technology could be ready to put completely driverless cars on the road by 2019. Execs have conceded it still has a long way to go to reach that point.
One way to accelerate its testing efforts could be accomplished by racking up mileage. Uber only started testing in Arizona in earnest just over a year ago. It’s unclear how many drivers it has approved to test cars in Arizona; only California has significant reporting requirements for companies that test self-driving cars in the state. If Uber’s California testing requirements are any indication, testing drivers undergo a lengthy process to become a certified.
If Uber has a process in place on when it chooses to deploy one or two safety drivers isn’t clear. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on its polices and standards for safety drivers.
A spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday the video is “disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones,” and reiterated that Uber’s test cars remain grounded while the investigation of the federal, state and local investigations of the crash are ongoing. If we hear back, we’ll update the post.
Update: We switched the top image to one of Uber’s Volvo XC90s from a previously used Ford Fusion, as Uber no longer uses a fleet of Fusions.