“Driving” an autonomous vehicle

Last week, I joined Cruise Automation to “drive” their autonomous vehicles.

I wanna tell you what an amazing team it is, and some surprising things I learned behind the (lightly held) wheel. :)

It is still illegal for a car to drive by itself

In California, there is a permit you can get to test self driving cars on public roads. If you have any interest in this topic, this is worth reading. I read through all their documentation in about an hour or so. A very well thought out permitting process, all very reasonable.

This includes all of the public records of all wrecks that have happened — they’re all there, in photocopied hand written notes! When I read them, there were only 20. And all of them were caused by other human drivers, not the autonomous cars, except one, that that one was caused by the human autonomous driver disengaging the autonomous mode and taking over! Most of them were Google cars being rear-ended in a right hand turn — that is not at all a surprise to me, because their cars are so small. I drove a CRX in college, and it was like I was invisible. I’m confident that as Waymo (formerly Google) moves to full sized vehicles, this accident rate will fall to near zero.

Bottom line is that there needs to be a human in the driver seat to take over if necessary. In fact, there needs to be two humans, because the “driver” can’t really take any notes, and notes need to be taken right away while knowledge is fresh, so the engineers can learn and make improvements. Things can happen very quickly.

As autonomous vehicles get better and better, soon they will be better than human drivers. At that point, switching to autonomous cars will start saving lives, and I believe there will be an outcry for human drivers to be outlawed.

And that will be the tipping point: when the public realizes that people are dying because of human drivers. There is too much discussion about making autonomous vehicles perfectly safe — this can never be possible. But more importantly, think of it this way: if we waited for airplanes to be perfectly safe, we would have gotten nowhere. Even more importantly, if we wait, then people continue to die from human drivers.

What the team is like

At Cruise Automation, the driving team is amazingly professional. Though the job we’re all doing is humble, it is critically important, and is the face of Cruise Automation and of GM. How we drive is always under scrutiny. If we make even one mistake, it would be plastered on the news, like the first Tesla death on autopilot was.

The team, though, sees it not as a pressure, but more of a noble duty to do well. We take over if ever needed, even if the car may have been ok. You have express permission to take over any time you ever feel unsafe in any way. Safety is the single most important thing on the team.

I must call out both the Team and Training leaders specifically as amazingly professional and approachable. The three of them all have a calm leadership that keeps the team focused on safety.

The training is impeccable. Cruise is growing and always changing their methods, but it has never felt haphazard or thrown together. Everything feels so well thought through and comprehensive.

Though I’m only one of two women on the team, everyone has been very welcoming and respectful, introducing themselves, and offering advice or help if ever needed.

You might think everyone would have their own way of doing things, but no, everything is kept very consistent. This comes from switching partners constantly and keeping consistent checklists, even as things change and features are added. It’s a very impressive operation.

What it demands — this is not like driving!

This job has been amazingly exhausting! The training weeks are limited hours, and I’m thankful that they are! I have collapsed into bed every night and slept well!

Why is it so demanding? This is not like driving. It is much more like training a driver. You cannot relax and let your driving instincts take over, like driving for a ride sharing company or driving on a commute. You are watching the car drive, and being hyper-alert at all times, in case a human driver acts unpredictably. Yes, the human drivers are constantly a surprise and threat. Being alert at all times takes a lot of mental energy, far more than I expected.

I’m finding that my body is exhausted. Though I have started walking my commute, and that’s some of my exhaustion, the real exhaustion is in my upper body as I’m learning to be alert without being tense.

In my time as a programmer, I had had days of body exhaustion during crunch times, and wondered how I can be so exhausted when I sat on my butt every day. I read that our brains use 30% of all of our calories — the more you think, the more brain workout you get, and the more exhausted you will be at the end of the day.

This is one of the most mentally challenging jobs I have ever had.

Do not make eye contact

This was an odd lesson I learned: the less you interact with the public, the more they realize the humans are not the ones driving.

We’ve had drivers wave us through, and we waved politely to acknowledge, but then the car decided it was time to go instead. Better to just look away and do not acknowledge the wave at all. They will have to read the “driver’s” intent by what the car does, not by what the human does.

An old adage I’ve had for years: you cannot educate the public with your driving. :) This is a good adage to hold, because no driver is going to learn anything from driving mean or “teaching them a lesson.” No driver is going to go, “oh, I can see my error now! I will drive much better in the future.”

We’ve had the public throw boxes into the street in front of the car, pretend to roll over the hood as if we’d hit them, try to kick at the sensors, or even just yell at us to go when the car has decided it is still unsafe. This is understandable. It will take time for people to understand that the cars are being trained, the cars are learning, we are merely testing.

Most of the time, the public watches in awe, furtively pointing us out to friends, curious and impressed.

Anger towards self driving cars.

There is anger towards self driving cars taking jobs. We get that too. But keep in mind that there have been many things that have shifted how jobs are created and destroyed. At one time, families had many servants — where did those jobs go? At one time, families raised their own food, but as we shifted from food production to food consumption, this flooded people into the workforce. As women were relieved of housework from automation in the past, this flooded the jobs with employable women. Though there was a shift, as people made more money, this also made the economy grow.

You have to realize that the single biggest impact on jobs has far more to do with population growth than automation. When I was a kid, we crossed 4 billion people. We’re now at 7 billion people. Yet people still seem to find jobs.

Saving lives is worth a shift in what types of jobs are available. Self driving cars will open up new opportunities, even as some close, new businesses will spring up, new problems will get solved, and humanity will grow and improve. Lyft and Uber didn’t get rid of taxies so much as open up new areas for ridership. I’ve used Lyft more in the last month than I had ever used a taxi — I put money into an economy where I had put almost none in before.

How amazing these cars are already…and how rapidly they are improving

Though the specifics are proprietary, of course, their fleet of cars has amazing ability already! They have a video here and here of full autonomous mode, driving the entire time, with no driver take over at all. Pay attention to all the brutal situations the car has to handle on the busy San Francisco streets! And it handles them all, in both videos!

There is always room for improvement, and Cruise will be around for a long time, making things better and better, striving always diligently towards unattainable perfection. But they are so far along, and so rapidly improving every day, it’s stunning to watch!

It is just exciting to me to be a part of this revolution that will save lives and free us all to spend our time on higher priorities. As a mom who spends far too much time shuttling my daughter around, stressed in traffic, I’m excited for the day I can sit in the back with her, and chat about her day, her hopes, and her dreams and let the car drive itself.