Uber Behind the Scenes: Safety Drivers and Self-Driving Cars


Uber enthusiasts and users will know that the ride-hailing service is perhaps a godsend in a world where commuting is sometimes difficult. There’s convenience knowing there’s actually a working system that allows riders and drivers to interact with one another and earn a living while riding around. Interestingly, Uber wants to take a step further and develop their self-driving cars.

However, before there can be self-driving cars, there has to be safety drivers.

That’s right, these safety drivers are the ones in charge should Uber’s prototype self-driving cars go haywire. Interestingly, it’s not exactly an easy thing to do either.

Safety Drivers, Self-Driving Vehicles

CNET got a personal behind-the-scenes look to this system thanks to an interview with a prospective Pennsylvania safety driver. Rick McKahan said he had to spend a few days driving a “simulated city,” just to make sure he can handle obstacles and corners properly.

After his “training,” McKahan is also now in charge of handling new safety driver trainees as well. Interestingly, these trainees aren’t only humans, some of them are cars as well. In this Uber facility near the Monongahela River, or the Mon, drivers and cars alike learn how to operate the roads.

Interestingly, McKahan’s job as a safety driver is to “teach” the self-driving cars how to ride properly. If all else fails, safety drivers can take over and control the cars themselves. This means they have to learn how to operate the cars through Uber’s programming as well, which is no mere task.

As seen in the “training,” the self-driving vehicles cruise around the simulated city when random obstacles appear. These are in the form of passenger doors that open, or mannequins that suddenly try to cross the road. This tests if self-driving cars have the instincts to know to stop when there are obstacles and pedestrians around.

Given that these machines are of course programmed, they have their own variety of cameras, lasers, and sensors to detect their surroundings. The nature of the technology means Uber isn’t just the only company aiming to bring self-driving cars on the road. Apple, Google, Tesla, Ford, Toyota, and Volvo are also trying to make their own versions of self-driving cars.

A Little History of Self-Driving

However, Uber was the first to roll out self-driving cars to the public in 2015. Its small fleet of cars in Pittsburgh were the first to offer rides to passenger. More than 200 cars were deployed, and they seem to be working fine.

Uber isn’t out of controversy, however, as they are also in a legal battle versus Waymo. This is the self-driving car division of Google, which claims Uber stole its technology. Their trials will start this December.

Other pains include Uber not being able to secure permits from San Francisco’s DMV branch, which means they have to halt testing in the state. Uber will also have to deal with some technology and safety issues, including a vehicle that actually ran past a red light.

Regardless, the hopes of driving technology faster without human control is something that these companies aspire to. Safety drivers and self-driving cars may be Uber’s first step towards this goal, but it’s not its only step for a more automated future.