Autonomous vehicles were supposed to make human drivers obsolete. But the coronavirus pandemic is exposing how a technology designed to be human-free still relies on a large workforce of contract laborers at almost every level.
The Verge reached out to 10 autonomous vehicle developers to find out what they were doing in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Almost all of them said they would be grounding their fleets for at least several weeks as they monitor the spread of the virus.
But the fate of human backup drivers who ride around in the vehicles is less certain. The vast majority of safety drivers aren’t actually employed by the companies that build and test self-driving cars. Instead, these companies rely on staffing agencies to fill those roles, putting some legal space between the companies and their drivers. Seven of the companies told The Verge they would continue to pay drivers while testing was suspended. But some drivers say they are worried about the long-term security of their jobs — despite working with technology that ultimately aims to put them out of a job.
“We’re working class people, what’re we supposed to do?” said one driver who has worked for three different self-driving car companies over the past few years. “You think we’d be working for less than $50,000 a year if we didn’t have to?”
The deciding factor for companies testing in the Bay Area, when it came to shutting down, was San Francisco’s “shelter in place” order that bans nonessential transportation. But even those testing their vehicles in other cities have said they will halt operations for at least the next few weeks. It’s a stark reminder that even those companies that are aiming to develop human-free driving systems are still vulnerable to a pandemic — because their systems rely on human workers, from backup drivers to remote operators, at almost every level.
The temporary shutdown won’t affect the development process for self-driving cars, especially since most companies are able to continue testing in simulation, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research. The real impact will be on the hundreds of human workers who enable the cars to be tested publicly every day. “This is likely to last more than a few weeks and like many other workers in food, retail and other businesses they are going to be hurting,” Abuelsamid said.
Here is how each company is responding to the virus:
On Tuesday, Waymo said it would be pausing its robotaxi service in Arizona, which serves around 1,500 customers in the suburbs outside Phoenix. The Alphabet subsidiary also said it would halt testing with human safety drivers in Mountain View, California.
Its fully driverless vehicles, which operate within a 500-square-mile service area, will continue to pick up and drop off some passengers. And the dispatchers who monitor those vehicles from a remote facility are still expected to come into work, though a Waymo spokesperson told The Information that their workstations will be spaced apart to account for social distancing. Waymo will also continue to test its self-driving trucks and operate its pilot delivery service, Waymo Via, in the Phoenix area.
Waymo’s full-time employees are being encouraged to work from home, except for those whose jobs are deemed “business critical.” A majority of the company’s safety drivers, who are employed by French transit staffing company Transdev, are also being told to stay home. Transdev said they will continue to be paid for up to two weeks during the shutdown, according to an email obtained by The Verge. Some drivers are still doing their routes in Arizona, which hasn’t issued a “shelter in place” rule. And anyone feeling ill is recommended to stay home and collect paid sick time.
As The Verge has previously reported, tension is high between Waymo and its third-party safety drivers since the company signed a contract with Transdev last year. Vacation time was cut, health insurance didn’t improve, and issues of workplace safety went unaddressed, according to a half-dozen workers who spoke to The Verge for a story last month. And just last week, drivers said they were increasingly nervous about picking up passengers amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, and that the outbreak is exposing divisions between drivers and full-time employees at the Google spinoff.
“I’m worried,” one driver said. “Anyone providing services to one of the richest and most valuable companies in the world shouldn’t have to think about those things.”
Cruise has the largest fleet of self-driving cars in the Bay Area: 233 vehicles registered with the state DMV. The majority-owned subsidiary of General Motors said on Tuesday that it would shut down its testing operation for three weeks in response to the outbreak. Safety drivers, who are employed by a staffing firm called Aerotek, would be fully paid during the shutdown, a spokesperson said.
In line with guidance from public health officials, we’ve suspended operations & closed all San Francisco facilities with a plan to reopen in 3 weeks. AV test operators will be fully-paid for any days they would’ve worked during this period. –@ArdenMHoffman1, Chief People Officer
— Cruise (@Cruise) March 16, 2020
Unlike Waymo, Cruise isn’t available to the public, though it does conduct a ride-hailing pilot for Cruise employees. Full-time workers are being advised to work from home.
Zoox, a self-driving startup valued at $3.2 billion, said it is halting its testing in San Francisco and Las Vegas until April 7th.
Initially, some of the company’s drivers, who work for a staffing company called Experis, were under the impression they would be out of work during that period, according to chats viewed by The Verge. One driver said they reached out to their Experis representative about the shutdown and received a link to information about unemployment insurance in response.
But after being contacted for comment by The Verge, Zoox claims there was a miscommunication and that all backup drivers will be paid during the three-week shutdown. A spokesperson denied that drivers were originally told they wouldn’t be paid.
“As always, the safety and health of our team and the community are paramount. Therefore, in accordance with the Public Health Order, we have suspended all vehicle operations in San Francisco and Las Vegas, until April 7,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Our drivers will continue to be paid during this time. Along with everyone else, we will continue to evaluate this challenging situation as it evolves.”
Argo, the self-driving startup backed by Ford and Volkswagen, does most of its testing in Pittsburgh, Miami, Detroit, and Washington, DC. The company said it would halt on-road testing in all locations, though it declined to say for how long.
“Argo AI places the highest priority on ensuring our employees and contractors have a safe, secure and healthy work environment,” a spokesperson said. “While we have not experienced significant impact due to the coronavirus, we have taken steps to allow work from home — including pausing vehicle testing operations — at all our locations. We continue to monitor the situation and will adjust plans accordingly.”
Argo initially declined to say whether its backup drivers would be paid during the shutdown, but when pressed by The Verge, the spokesperson said: “Our safety operators are going on paid leave, effective tomorrow, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and adjust accordingly.”
- Baidu, the Chinese tech giant, said it would cease operations in Santa Clara, California until April 7th and would continue paying its safety drivers during that time.
- Mobileye, a division of Intel, conducts the majority of its testing in Israel, which is in near-total lockdown in response to the virus. Still, the company says it has no plans to pause its AV testing at this time. “Our testing is in Israel and all work proceeds as usual, nothing is suspended,” the spokesperson said. “Most of the workforce is working from home and it is going very well.”
- Nuro, the company working on fully driverless delivery vehicles in Texas and Arizona, said it would be suspending all of its operations. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about whether its safety drivers would continue to be paid.
- Pony.ai, a startup with operations in California and China, said it has halted its robotaxi pilot in Irvine, California, for three weeks, as well as its AV commuter pilot in Fremont. “During suspension period, All of our vehicle operators are still being paid,” a spokesperson said.
- Neither Apple, which has 66 vehicles registered in California, nor Lyft, which has a pilot robotaxi service with Aptiv in Las Vegas, responded to questions about their self-driving car tests.
What happens beyond these next few weeks is anyone’s guess. Abuelsamid said the recent announcement that Waymo had raised over $2 billion in outside cash is likely to be the last major funding news for a while, given the economic uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus.
“AV startups will be hurting, but more from lack of revenue and funding opportunities going forward,” he said. “Even some of the bigger AV companies like Zoox could have a problem. They are currently trying raise a new round and I suspect it’s going to be very challenging.”