A day in the life of a Chinese robotaxi driver
The Robotaxi Safety Operator is a craft that only exists in our time, the result of evolving technology advanced enough to get rid of a driver – most of the time and in controlled environments – but not enough good for convincing the authorities that they can do it away from human intervention. Today, standalone companies from the United States, Europe and China are racing to bring the technology to commercial application. Most of them, including Apollo, the autonomous branch of Baidu, have started on-demand robotaxi trials on public roads, but have yet to operate under various constraints.
With an associate’s degree in human resources, Liu has no academic background related to this job, but he has always enjoyed driving, and he acted as a driver for his boss in a previous role. When he heard about self-driving technologies, his curiosity prompted him to search for related jobs online and apply. Today, with his buzzcut, warm smile and distinctive Beijing accent, Liu ‘drives’ a robotaxi five days a week through Shougang Park, a 3.3-square-mile former power station in Beijing that has been redeveloped as an attraction. tourist after serving as a sports venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. His car cannot leave the park, which has been designated as a robotaxis testing area, so its passengers are usually employees who work there or tourists visiting on weekends.
But Liu also needs to think about her next steps, as her job will likely be cut within a few years. He went through several robotaxi models and policy changes during his 19-month career as a security operator. In April 2021, Baidu acquired the license to place the security operator in the front passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat (only in Shougang Park), and Liu then changed his position and said goodbye to the steering wheel . On July 21 this year, Baidu unveiled its new robotaxi model with a removable steering wheel, which 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 daily life was like and what the future held for a profession that will soon disappear.
The interview has been translated from Chinese and edited for clarity.
MIT Technology Review (TR): How did you decide to become a security operator for an autonomous taxi?
Liu Yang: It was quite a coincidence. Back when I was parking a former boss’s car, I didn’t know what self-driving was, and saw that his car had a self-parking feature. I was super, super curious. It was really interesting when we ordinary people try it for the first time. Then I wanted to know more.
TR: How long have you been driving?
Liu: Twelve, thirteen.
TR: Do you remember the interview process?
Liu: I was extremely nervous when I went to the interview. We had two rounds, a face-to-face interview and a test drive. I think the road test for self-driving [operators] is more difficult than the practical test to obtain a driving licence. When you learn to drive, you have to watch your left, your right and the mirror; but when we take the test [for Baidu], you have to pay attention to all directions, as well as what each car in front or behind you is doing. Maybe it will suddenly change course and impact you.