My biggest complaint with Level 2 semi-automated driving systems is that, paradoxically, the better they get, the more of the driving task they perform, and the less attention the human behind the wheel pays to what’s actually going on. This is a big deal because Level 2 systems rely on a human for their no-warning backup in case the system disengages. This is a well-known problem, and this fundamental problem is at the root of all the people we’ve seen sleeping and otherwise not paying attention while driving Teslas. The problem isn’t just about Tesla, of course, and this example of a WeRide-modified Lincoln should show that pretty well.
Here’s the video, shot by a nearby motorist:
Huh. That safety driver really should wake up.
WeRide is one of China’s biggest autonomous vehicle companies, and deployed a fleet of 10 Lincoln MKZ sedans outfitted with their camera, lidar, and computer units in America last summer.
WeRide is in the process of developing what will be, they hope, a Level 4 vehicle; that means that the vehicle is capable of driving with zero human input within a specific geo-fenced area.
Of course, WeRide is not finished developing the system, hence the need for safety drivers. In this development phase, the system is really better thought of as a Level 2 system, because the system may disengage without warning and require the safety driver to take over at a moment’s notice.
That’s why it’s a bad idea for a safety driver to be asleep at the wheel.
WeRide’s own Voluntary Self-Assessment document describes their use of safety drivers, but only in context of “new software being tested”:
There are at minimum of two operators in the vehicle while new software is being tested. One operator sits behind the steering wheel and is responsible for taking control from the autonomous system whenever necessary. The driver can take over by manually turning the steering wheel, pressing the brakes, or the accelerator. There is also a redundant method to take control of the vehicle by pressing the “kill” switch. This “kill” switch immediately cuts communication between the software and the Drive-by-Wire system so that the driver can have immediate control. Safety drivers are instructed to only use this method of taking over as a last resort, after the other three methods have failed to work. The other operator acts as a second pair of eyes on the road to assist the driver. They also record valuable feedback evaluating the vehicle’s performance.
In this case, WeRide specifies two safety operators. I’m guessing because only one was visible in this car that the software may no longer be considered “new,” or the other safety driver is so asleep they’re just laying flat out in the back seat, sawing logs. I can’t tell.
WeRide claims to have the largest autonomous fleet in China, and currently operates a claimed Level 4 robotaxi service in Guangzhou, China.
This video seems to show at least some instances of the robotaxis running without safety drivers, though their safety report does note that the cars are monitored remotely, and remote operators can help a car in need:
Our system also has remote operation capability. The vehicle’s status will be reported to the operation center in real-time via a secured and redundant connection. The remote operator can also trigger remote hint, and the passenger can call for help and communicate with law enforcement via this remote operator system.
Regardless of what’s being done in China, here in America WeRide’s test vehicles do need safety drivers, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I bet a criteria of being a safety driver means not sleeping.
I’m not sure what sort of driver monitoring system WeRide uses in their test Lincolns, but I have reached out to the company to find out more information, and will update with anything I learn.
So, yeah, Level 2 system driver inattention is not just a Tesla problem!