The Coronavirus Highlights That There Are Still No True Autonomous Cars

Over the past couple of weeks, the workforce around the country has been hit hard with the impending threat of the coronavirus. Whether people are infected or not, thousands of workers have been forced to work from home and companies have even downsized during this tempestuous time.

It’s a sad state of affairs, even for the autonomous car companies that test their self-driving vehicles on the streets of California, Nevada, Arizona, and other states. While these companies are testing these autonomous cars with the intention of them driving themselves one day, the global pandemic has shown that they’re still heavily reliant on the contract workers behind the wheel as operations have been shut down and the workers sent home for the next three weeks. With no one sitting behind the wheel, no further testing can be done.

An experimental self-driving vehicle
| Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An unknown future

In a recent article posted by The Verge, they highlighted what the different self-driving car companies are doing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Companies like Zoox, Cruise, Waymo, and Argo have all grounded their fleets for the next few weeks and instructed their contract workers to stay at home during this time. There was a lot of worry coming from most of the contractors as they were uncertain whether or not they would be paid during this time. Fortunately, they all are.

We had a chance to speak with Jose, a contracted vehicle operator for Zoox, on his thoughts of having to halt operations, he stated, “I feel like now that a lot of media pages like The Verge are focusing on contractors and how they are treated, it’s putting pressure on these companies to not only treat contractors better but also be public about it.”

“One example is Cruise’s tweet, which specified how they will be paying their contractors during this time. It definitely seems like a move to boost public relations, but it benefits everyone,” he said. “Hopefully, going forward, these autonomous car companies will make contractors more into consideration when making decisions.”

It’s not just about the pay

In addition to what’s already been stated by The Verge, we can see that the autonomous car companies’ decisions to pause operations not only affects the livelihoods of the contractors that work for them in terms of pay, but it could also have an effect on the companies’ perspective and how their contractors should be treated going forward.

Aptiv self-driving car
Passenger in an Aptiv self-driving car | David Becker/Getty Images for Lyft

My personal thoughts

I used to work for Cruise/Aerotek testing self-driving prototypes on the crazy, rough streets of San Francisco.

The job involved being behind the wheel of an unpredictable car that was supposed to drive like a human for 8 hours a day. In most cases, it did not, as random steering jerks and unintended acceleration made it feel like an impending accident every 10 minutes. It did get a little better over time, but the pay didn’t outweigh the risk.

One thing to note is that I hope these companies take into consideration that these workers have lives and they live in expensive states like California, so the pay is important, but the longevity of their jobs is even more important.

While California mandated that all “non-essential” employees must be off the job during this time, I hope that these companies that are spending millions of dollars year after year on developing their self-driving technology will acknowledge those that risk their lives every day behind the wheel of their self-driving machinery.

While the coronavirus continues to ground fleets and their personnel, there is a valuable lesson to be learned about the employees that make companies like Zoox and Cruise go ‘round. Every one of them is essential. After all, it’s not just about creating a driverless future, it’s about who is doing it for you.