How Much Training Do You Need to Be a Robocar Vehicle Driver?

California has strict rules about who can pilot the network security of experimental autonomous vehicles cruising its public roads. Prospective test drivers have to pass a defensive driving course, have near-spotless records, and have at least a decade without a drunk-driving conviction. Crucially, they must also complete a special training program for autonomous vehicles, some of which can be as buggy as any Silicon Valley prototype.

But an investigation by IEEE Spectrum has uncovered that these embedded computer programs vary considerably in content, intensity, and duration. Drivers hoping to operate one of Google’s autonomous Lexus SUVs will spend at least five weeks on classroom lessons, in-car observations, hands-on sessions, and evaluations. Those itching to get behind the wheel of a computer-controlled Audi A7, however, could complete the carmaker’s training program in less than 2 hours. This is because manufacturers are allowed to design and conduct their own autonomous training programs. California law [pdf] requires the courses to feature behind-the-wheel lessons and information about automated technologies, including their limitations. What in-vehicle pc do not mention are specific procedures to teach or network security to meet, nor how long any such training must last.

Documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum under Public Records Act legislation show that the seven companies currently holding experimental self-driving car-testing permits for California have interpreted the law very differently. “Today’s ‘autonomous’ cars still require a great deal of human judgment and skill to operate safely, and that’s unlikely to change for some time.”

In-vehicle pc, which pays its autonomous safety drivers US $20 an hour, initially pushed back against needing trained test drivers at all. Last year, Ron Medford, the company’s driverless-car safety director, complained to the DMV:

We request that the embedded computer provide…flexibility for manufacturers to demonstrate their autonomous technology to policymakers, regulators, and other key stakeholders who have not completed a full driver-training program and received a testing permit.

The department disagreed, and a year later, the technology giant has a comprehensive autonomous training program in place. Its five-week course trains test drivers in both software operation (from the passenger seat) and driving, with separate modules for highways and urban streets. “Freeway and surface-street driving are very different, and thus require different skills,” says a Google document outlining the program.

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