A day in the life of a Chinese robot taxi driver

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Safety operator Robotaxi is a profession that only exists in our time, the result of an evolving technology advanced enough to get rid of a driver – mostly and in controlled environments – but not good enough to convince authorities that they can. completely away from human intervention. Today, self-driving companies from the US, Europe and China are racing to bring the technology to commercial application. Most of them, including Apollo, the self-driving arm of Baidu, have started on-demand robotic axi trials on public roads, but still have to work with various restrictions.

With an associate degree in human resources, Liu has no academic training related to this job, but he has always loved driving and in a previous position acted as a driver for his boss. When he heard about the self-driving technologies, his curiosity forced him to look up and apply for related job opportunities online. Today, with a cut, a warm smile and a signature Beijing accent, Liu “drives” a robotic axi five days a week in Shougang Park, a former 3.3-square-mile power plant in Beijing that has been redeveloped into a tourist attraction. after serving as a sports venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. His car can’t leave the park, which was designated as a testing ground for robotaxis, so his passengers are usually employees who work there or tourists visiting on weekends.

But Liu also needs to think about his next steps, as his job is likely to disappear in a few years. He has experienced several robotic axi models and policy changes in his 19-month career as a security operator. In April 2021, Baidu acquired the license to place the safety operator in the front passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat (only within Shougang Park), and Liu then changed position and said goodbye to the wheel. On July 21 of this year, Baidu unveiled its new robotic axi model with removable handlebars. It is expected to be operational in 2023.

MIT Technology Review spoke with Liu Yang in June. We asked him how he got this job, what his day-to-day life is like and what the future holds for a profession that will soon disappear.

The interview has been translated from Chinese and edited for clarity.

How did you come up with the idea of ​​becoming a safety operator for a self-driving taxi?

It was quite a coincidence. When I parked the car for an old boss, I didn’t know what self-driving was and saw that his car had a self-park function. I was super, super curious. It was really interesting when we ordinary people tried it for the first time. Then I wanted to know more.

How long have you been driving?

Twelve, 13 years.

Do you remember what the job interview was like?

I was extremely nervous when I went for the interview. We had two rounds, a face-to-face interview and a road test. I think the driving test is for self-driving [operators] is more difficult than the driving test for obtaining a driver’s license. When you learn to drive, you need to look at your left, right and rear view mirrors; but if we do the test [for Baidu], you need to pay attention to all directions, as well as what each car is doing in front of or behind you. Maybe it suddenly changes lanes and hits you.