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Waymo Commits to Using Safety Drivers in Autonomous Vehicles Long Term

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【Summary】Human operators will be in Waymo’s self-driving cars for years to come, as the company recently signed a multiyear contract with Transdev North America for transportation workers.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Jan 20, 2020 8:00 AM PT
Waymo Commits to Using Safety Drivers in Autonomous Vehicles Long Term

Waymo may be offering riders in select states with fully autonomous rides, but human safety drivers have played a large role in the company. For nearly all of the company's 20 million miles of roads being driven, a human safety driver has been in the autonomous car. Fully self-driving vehicles may be on the horizon, but Waymo doesn't see its safety drivers being kicked to the curb any time soon.

Safety Drivers Are Here To Stay

As Bloomberg reports, Waymo recently finalized a multiyear contract with Transdev North America, a company that specializes in providing transportation workers to cities and airports. The deal is proof that Waymo will continue to use human safety drivers in the future.

"For the foreseeable future, as we expand and are driving in some of these new areas, it's critical that we have vehicle operators," said Rocky Garff, Waymo's head of operations. "They're part of the equation that gets us to fully self-driving."

The outlet claims that Transdev North America won't supply contractors for its self-driving arm, but instead, it involves the company providing test-driving as a service. As the outlet points out, the distinction is important, because it sees Transdev replace multiple staffing companies that Waymo was using for subcontracted drivers. Under Waymo's previous arrangements with the staffing companies, safety drivers could only work for two years at a time with a break of six months between stretches. The rule is apparently in place because it keeps drivers from claiming that Waymo is their employer.

Now, the new deal puts even more legal space between drivers and Waymo, claims Bloomberg. Human safety drivers are now employees of Transdev and can stay on indefinitely. The deal is reportedly valued at tens of millions of dollars for the first year and has the potential of reaching nine figures in the future. An unnamed source with knowledge of the deal told the outlet about the partnership.

More Job Security

As Bloomberg reports, before the new deal with Transdev, the end goal for safety drivers were to get on Waymo's official team. Unfortunately, that's more difficult than it sounds because of the way staffing companies filled positions. A current driver with Waymo claims that Adecco USA, one of Waymo's major staffing companies, misrepresented how easy it was to get hired by Waymo.

There's also the position itself, which is difficult because it requires safety drivers to remain attentive for long hours essentially doing nothing. One driver stated that they took breaks to do jumping jacks, another fought drowsiness by turning up the radio and rolling down the windows. "We even had people eat full meals behind the wheel, which is not safe."

In addition to the work, there's the aspect that the job will, at least one day, go extinct. "The whole goal is to work to eliminate your own position, which is a really weird thing to come in every day thinking," one former driver said. Bloomberg claims that only letting a few safety drivers become full-time employees with the company is one way the company reminds its drivers that they won't be needed one day.

Until then, expect to see a human safety driver in one of Waymo's autonomous vehicles for some time.

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