What’s it like to operate an autonomous passenger vehicle?

It can seem strange to talk about ‘operating’ an autonomous vehicle; after all, autonomous vehicles operate themselves. At the moment, though, UK law requires a safety driver or operator to be present for any autonomous vehicle trial. The operator can be inside the vehicle or monitoring it from elsewhere, but they must be ready to take control of the vehicle at any point if necessary.

Paul Proteasa and Peter Antal have been serving as safety operators aboard the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle, an autonomous public transport service supported by ESA, for several months now. We spoke to them about what it’s like to operate the shuttle, and how it differs from their past experience with driving buses.

How does operating an autonomous vehicle differ from driving a bus?

At first, operating the shuttle felt strange and disconcerting. It had no steering wheel, so the operators instead had to become acquainted with a handheld controller and the on-board emergency stop button. It turned out to be much like riding a bike, though; with experience, the required skills quickly became ingrained until they felt natural.

Aboard the shuttle, you find yourself thinking two steps ahead in a way you don’t on a bus. As a bus driver, if you see something unexpected, your role is to directly react to it by moving or stopping the bus. As the operator of an autonomous shuttle, if you see something unexpected, your next move is to anticipate how the shuttle will react to this event, and whether you’ll need to react to that.

Another significant difference between driving a bus and serving as a safety operator is the fact that, when you’re standing by as a safety operator aboard an autonomous vehicle, you can talk to passengers. In fact, this is an important part of the operator’s role on the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle. Many people who board the shuttle may not have ridden an autonomous vehicle before, so they may have questions or uncertainties, and the operator is there to answer those questions.

It took Paul some practice before he was able to speak to passengers while the shuttle was moving. At first, when people tried to talk to him, he wouldn’t hear it because he was so focused on the road ahead. By now, he’s mastered the art of speaking while keeping his attention on the road.

Learning to train new operators

Fully autonomous vehicles are still a rare sight, which means that few people have personal experience with their operation. In other words, autonomous vehicle operators have valuable knowledge that others can benefit from.

In early February, when the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle had been running for a couple of months, Darwin’s operators underwent Navya’s ‘Train the Trainer’ course; Navya is the autonomous vehicle developer behind the shuttle’s creation. Julien Brulé, Navya’s head of customer delegation, came to Harwell to teach Peter and Paul how they could impart their knowledge to new operators, with two days of theoretical training and one day of practical training on the shuttle.

Peter and Paul felt they took a lot from the experience. The things they were being trained on were things they already knew, as they had already been operating the shuttle for some time. However, they were taught how to think about these things more consciously, and how to explain them to others. Essentially, they learnt how to look at what they were doing from a teacher’s perspective, so they would then be able to teach the required skills to other people.

Peter and Paul were quick to put their newfound teaching skills into action. A month after the Train the Trainer course, they trained Irving Galva Tapia to be Darwin’s newest autonomous shuttle operator, with Paul in charge of theoretical training and Peter handling practical training on the shuttle. The focused one-on-one training went quickly and well, and we’re delighted to welcome Irving to the team!

We’re hoping to launch the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle service in other locations, such as Málaga, so the expertise and teaching skills of our shuttle operators will continue to be valuable in the future. We’ll also be gathering and sharing some thoughts about the experience of autonomous vehicles from a passenger’s perspective, so keep an eye out for future articles!

Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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