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Autonomous Vehicle Safety and Test Drivers

The Job

An autonomous vehicle uses artificial intelligence software (including machine learning and computer vision), radio detection and ranging (RADAR), light detection and ranging (LiDAR), sensors, and cameras to assess the driving environment and operate without human intervention. SAE International, a professional association for engineers and technical experts, defines six levels of driving automation ranging from level 0 (fully manual) to level 5 (fully autonomous). Visit for more information about these levels.

Safety and test drivers have an important, but somewhat strange, role in the AV development process. While nearly all drivers actually drive a vehicle, these drivers only do so when a problem arises with the operation of an autonomous vehicle that is being tested or otherwise operated. In preparation for this important job, drivers sit behind the wheel. They either have their hands near the wheel or on the wheel, depending on their employer’s policy. Much of the time, a software or other type of engineer sits in the passenger seat to assess the performance of the vehicle’s autonomous systems.

Before the test, the driver conducts a vehicle inspection to ensure that mechanical, safety, and emergency equipment is in working order. They may conduct calibration testing on vehicle sensors and other technology to ensure proper functionality. Then the test drive begins. The driver and engineer communicate regularly during the test to discuss road and environmental conditions, the performance of the autonomous vehicle, and any issues that arise with the software, RADAR, LiDAR, sensors, and cameras. After the test is completed, the driver provides written and verbal feedback regarding the vehicle’s operation during testing and non-testing points of the assignment. If necessary, he or she also reports any traffic violations, vehicle defects, accidents, damage, or unexpected autonomous vehicle system disengagements (i.e., the AV transitioning control from autonomous systems to the test driver) that occurred during the test. Some drivers create logs of their working hours and of a vehicle’s service or repair status per company rules or government regulations. Drivers may be asked to provide feedback to software engineers regarding the most appropriate road to test AV software. Certain tests are more effective on public roads, while others are better conducted on a test track.

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