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As the Pandemic Rages, Contract Workers Face Risky Conditions Testing Self-Driving Cars

Maybe it’s time for them to move out of Silicon Valley

Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

The year 2020 has been a tougher year than usual for almost everyone and particularly for those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to the extraordinarily high cost of living in the region, it was one of the first American hotspots for the coronavirus outbreak, and since mid-summer it has been plagued by even larger wildfires than usual. For safety operators working for automated driving companies based in the Bay Area, it’s even worse. But some companies appear to be taking better care of their employees than others.

Larger Autonomous Vehicle (AV) companies like Cruise and Waymo are still using two safety operators per vehicle. The person behind the steering wheel is focused on watching the road and is prepared to take control whenever they deem that it might be unsafe to allow the automation to continue. The second operator is watching the data and noting anomalies that should be investigated.

Before 2020 none of us gave much thought to the potential hazards of two individuals sitting in close proximity for several hours at a time inside a closed space. But now we’re living through an airborne virus pandemic, which makes the current responsibilities of these safety operators inherently unsafe. The extremely poor air quality resulting from the smoke in the Bay Area exacerbates this by limiting the ability to bring fresh air into the cabin. As a Verge report recently explained, the two safety operators in the car together had to make the choice between breathing recycled air inside the car’s cabin or rolling down the windows and breathing air that AirNow.gov called “very unhealthy.”

This is particularly problematic for Cruise, which does the vast majority of its testing and development in San Francisco, where it is expected to launch its commercial service at some point in the next year or two. Waymo is also now putting more effort into the city as it will likely be its second commercial market. Waymo is already operating some limited commercial services in suburban Phoenix.

One of the challenges for these operators complaining about the working conditions is that they are not actually employees of either Cruise or Waymo. Both companies use third-party contractors to employ the operators.

However, the challenges faced by Waymo and Cruise operators are not universal in this business. Several other AV companies are focusing their development and commercialization efforts in other regions and taking more care of their employees. Notable among these is Argo AI. Argo is the AV development partner for both Ford and Volkswagen, and while they have an office and do some limited testing in California, they are based in Pittsburgh and most of their vehicles are in a handful of other cities including Miami; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; and Detroit.

One of the challenges for these operators complaining about the working conditions is that they are not actually employees of either Cruise or Waymo.

Focus on safety

Ford was Argo’s first investor and its primary development partner until the VW investment was completed in June of this year. As soon as the pandemic halted testing operations, Ford and Argo began looking at what it would take to safely resume once restrictions were lifted. Ford had already been developing its “Return to Work Playbook” with policies and procedures to be implemented at all of its facilities before they could resume operations.

This became the foundation for what Argo implemented at its offices and vehicle depots including deep cleaning, daily self-certification for each employee before coming to work, temperature screening on arrival, and personal protective equipment including face masks at all times. Argo also reorganized workplaces to enable safe social distancing and the vehicles are disinfected at the end of each shift.

Source: Argo AI

On top of this Argo also made some changes to how it operates as part of its Return to Road Guide. Prior to the pandemic, vehicle testing was happening over the course of two daily shifts. The shifts would overlap with all operators returning to base before the end of the shift for a virtual all-hands with all operators from both shifts gathering at each of the testing locations for a debrief. There is now a gap of at least 30 minutes between shifts to allow for cleaning and minimizing contact and briefings occur at the beginning of the two shifts.

That’s all good, but the reality is that the operators spend most of their time in the car, just as those at Waymo, Cruise, and other companies do. Argo and Ford engineers made changes to the entire fleet of over 100 Ford Fusions before any testing resumed. A transparent, marine-grade vinyl barrier is installed down the center of each car from the dashboard to the rear window and floor to ceiling to minimize physical interaction.

They also made changes to keep the air in the cabin clean and safe. HEPA cabin filters with the same efficiency as N95 masks are used to clean any particulates from incoming fresh air. The filters are removed and disinfected with UV-C lamps weekly. Each vehicle also has a five-stage cabin filtration unit installed behind the headrest of each front seat. These are used to clean the air on each side of the plastic barrier. Cabin air goes through an activated carbon filter, a HEPA filter, a photocatalyst filter, a UV-C lamp, and an ionizer.

Photo: Argo AI

“Note that the safety precautions that we put in place were before we started back testing on public roads from the lockdown,” said Argo spokesman Alan Hall. “They were not implemented on a rolling basis, or after learning or hearing feedback as an afterthought. We were proactive and worked with our test specialists to define and engineer solutions based on their input, before we asked them to get back into the vehicles. And then we slowly ramped up operations, city by city based on local guidance — it wasn’t just a flip of the switch.”

There’s another distinction between the safety operators at Argo and their counterparts on the West Coast. Since October 2019, the operators have been full-time Argo employees, with associated benefits, not contractors.

Other AV companies including Voyage and May Mobility have been installing barriers between the front and rear seats in their vehicles along with UV-C lamps for disinfection after each passenger trip. However, Argo appears to have gone farther than other companies in trying to ensure a safe environment for its employees. The same changes implemented in Waymo and Cruise vehicles would be even more beneficial to their operators in San Francisco, although getting out of the area entirely would likely improve safety even more.

And then there’s Tesla

Tesla is in many ways the outlier in this whole conversation. Based on the reports it files with the state of California, it does almost no on-road testing in its home state. In 2019, Tesla only recorded 12 miles of automated operation, all of which was during the recording of a demonstration video for its autonomy day.

Rather than paying either its own employees or contractors to test its so-called “full self-driving” (FSD) system, it gets paid by its customers to be testers. Tesla recently started deploying a beta of what it calls feature-complete FSD to a select number of users. While Tesla doesn’t worry about Covid-19 precautions in customer vehicles, it also doesn’t do much to ensure the on-road safety of the people it relies on to gather test data.

When launching the beta, users have to click through a disclaimer that warns them in no uncertain terms that the system is not at all complete. The disclaimer reads, “Full Self-Driving is in early limited access Beta and must be used with additional caution. It may do the wrong thing at the worst time, so you must always keep your hands on the wheel and pay extra attention to the road. Do not become complacent.”

Tesla has completely abdicated any responsibility it has for the safety of its system as well as other road users in the vicinity of vehicles running its beta software. Whether contractors or employees, at least other safety operators get training and have specific procedures to follow. Tesla’s testers are on their own.

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Sam Abuelsamid

Sam Abuelsamid

Sam is a principal analyst leading Guidehouse Insights’ e-Mobility Research Service covering automated driving, electrification and mobility services

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