Beverly Morrison wasn’t looking for a job when she stumbled onto an opening for a safety driver for Embark Trucks, a startup developer of autonomous trucking software.

“I went, ‘Wow, a safety driver for self-driving trucks.’ I was amazed because I had heard of this technology developing and I was realizing that it’s probably the way of the future, but it was the first company I’ve seen doing it,” Morrison said.

Beverly Morrison does more than monitor the high-autonomy functions of Embark Trucks. She also worked on Embark’s solution to the challenge of how robot truck navigate unexpected construction zones. (Photo: Embark Trucks)

Embark was the first of at least a half-dozen software companies to experiment with self-driving trucking technology, completing a five-day, 2,400-mile trip cross country from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, in 2018.

It is difficult to pinpoint how many human overseers for robot trucks are employed across the industry — probably not more than a hundred. But they are essential to computer-guided trucks, which may eventually take on undesirable long-haul routes in an environment where there are tens of thousands of job openings but few applicants.

It is a big reason why major motor carriers are investing in and partnering with self-driving truck software makers. The technology won’t be cheap upfront — north of $10,000 per truck — but the price tag is offset by efficiency gains and lower operations costs as human drivers are replaced by robots.

Experienced drivers wanted

Morrison accumulated about 2 million accident-free miles over 25 years, mostly hauling gasoline from refineries to Northern California filling stations.

“They look for someone with decades of experience and most of our drivers are older than average, certainly older than everyone else in the company,” she said, not specifically mentioning 25-year-old Embark Co-Founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues. “They want the ones that are familiar with the roads, the working of trucks. All the safety issues.”

And if autonomous trucks are to become a meaningful part of the nation’s fleet, they have to be proven safe all the time, not just most of the time.

“I believe in the technology, and I believe that we need safer roads and they’re only going to be safer without humans behind the wheel because people are getting too distracted all the time,” Morrison said. “We’re out to prove that this technology is safer than any humans behind the wheel.”

“I believe in the technology, and I believe that we need safer roads and they’re only going to be safer without humans behind the wheel because people are getting too distracted all the time. We’re out to prove that this technology is safer than any humans behind the wheel.”

Beverly Morrison, Embark Trucks safety driver

Ruben Cardenas drove 2 million miles over 22 years, twice as an owner-operator. He spent 11 years of that time as a company driver for Paso Robles, California-based Michael Ducey Trucking, hauling wine up and down the West Coast.

The senior recruiter for autonomous software developer Plus called Cardenas to see if he was interested in joining the company Cardenas had seen an ad for on LinkedIn. Two of the three discussions he had with Plus occurred during downtime due to breakdowns.

“I had just about enough of the breakdowns and those types of things,” Cadenas told FreightWaves. A desire for more home time with a baby on the way made the decision “a no-brainer.”

Ruben Cardenas drove as an owner-operator and company driver for 22 years before joining Plus as a safety driver. (Photo: Plus)

That was three years ago. Cardenas’ daughter, Brooklyn, is now 3 years old. He regularly gets to see her because his schedule is structured to come in safely under the federal hours-of-service regulations. Robot trucks aren’t subject to those rules. They don’t get tired. They stop only for refueling and emergency repairs like a flat tire.

“When going down the road, we find ourselves needing breaks a little more frequently than the average driver because we’re under such concentration,” Cardneas said. “So, we usually [do more than] the Department of Transportation guidelines on mandatory breaks and stuff.”

When TuSimple recently hauled a load of watermelons from Nogales, Arizona, to Oklahoma City, the 900 miles driven with high-autonomy software required swapping drivers during the 14-hour run. And human drivers began and ended the trip without the software engaged.

Plus has about a half-dozen safety drivers and hires contract drivers for specific projects, such as the recent 4,000-mile journey on China’s Silk Road trade route across seven provinces and 38 cities in China. 

Driver training

Getting a truck driver ready to know that it’s OK to avoid taking the wheel — and when to disengage the autonomous system — is a complex mix of on-road and classroom teaching.

Waymo Via, the autonomous trucking unit of Google-backed Waymo, relies on its partner Transdev, which recruits and manages CDL-carrying safety drivers and non-driving autonomous specialists. 

“Our CDL autonomous specialists for our trucks have all completed our standard New Driver Training program that all autonomous specialists take,” Waymo spokesperson Julianne McGoldrick said. “We have them go through Allen Berg [Racing Schools] defensive driving school and pass manual driving knowledge and skills assessments before they can operate our autonomously driven trucks.”

In 2019, TuSimple Holdings teamed with Pima Community College in Arizona to create a certificate course for training autonomous truck drivers. The first graduate recently joined the company, TuSimple spokesperson Jessicia Arciero said.

Embark starts driver training in an office setting with 1:1 instruction and classes explaining what is expected of a safety driver.

“I work in the same building with 99% of the engineers in the company,” Morrison said. “And I would meet each of those teams to learn all the components of what goes into it. And then they take us to a track. On day one, before they ever have you engage [with] the self-driving aspect of the truck, they’ve walked you through all that already and prepped you mentally.”

A virtual preference

Aurora Innovation, which develops automotive and commercial-grade autonomous software,  relies mostly on simulations to develop its AuroraDriver. In a June 28 blog post, CEO Chris Urmson said Aurora had exceeded 5 billion virtual miles by June. It expects to have driven the equivalent of more than 9 billion miles by the end of the year.

While not criticizing human-supervised autonomous driving, Urmson suggested it is mathematically and situationally limited in building the trove of data needed to assure safe operation.

“An on-road fleet of 100 trucks gets you about 100 roundtrips between Dallas and Houston each day, if you’re lucky,’ he wrote. “The fleet experiences only the driving scenarios and environmental conditions that happened to occur on that route, that day.”

More than babysitters

Morrison and Cardenas do a lot before they climb into the driver’s seat, typically accompanied by a laptop-toting software engineer in the passenger seat.

“Our system is meant to be used by an individual driver. So, there are times where I’m just out getting data collection, those types of things, and just making sure the system is in a good state,” Cardenas said of the PlusDrive system that goes into production in China this year and already has been retrofitted to some trucks Amazon will use in the U.S.

“Some of those times I am out testing by myself, but any type of tuning or development is usually with an engineer,” Cardenas said.

Communication with software engineers is critical, not just to know what is being tested but also where the best place is to do the testing. After two years, and now as senior safety driver, Cardenas knows his passenger engineers and their specific disciplines, such as perception or software controls.

“It’s very important to know exactly what we’re testing. I’m the driver, and it’s not up to [the engineer] to know what is completely safe for public roads, Cardenas said. ”I can usually make a determination based on what they want to test, if it’s something that we can do on public roads [or] maybe we need to reserve some time in a closed-course setting.

“If we’re doing lane-keeping, I might want to go on a section of road that has some turns in it where we can’t see too far ahead, so we can really test the performance versus traffic tuning.”

Pandemic adjustments

During the pandemic, when on-road testing was curtailed, Embark found other duties for Morrison.

“I became more involved in the technology side of it when we all were having to work from home, but they put us to great use,” she said. “And I got to learn more about the technology over time. I really put myself out there to get as involved as I can.”

For example, Embark recently claimed to be the first autonomous trucking software maker to solve the challenge of construction zones, some of which spring up after high-definition mapping is completed on a given highway.

“We needed to teach the truck how to recognize all the components that go into a lane closure on the freeway,” Morrison said. “We began teaching it piece by piece to recognize what [traffic] cones look like, what warning signs [indicate] that there’s about to be construction.

“I had a big part in labeling those literally on the software that learns through artificial intelligence and machine learning,” she said. “Once you teach it how to recognize something, it recognizes it more and more and more.”

Evangelizing for autonomy

Winning over skeptics and critics who fear job losses to autonomous trucking is a part of the safety driver’s role, even if it is not included in the job description.

“Sometimes I get really negative attitudes,” Morrison said. “So, I have to be prepared to let them know, like, ‘Wait a minute, this is not a thing to be worried about.’ It’s always different when I go to truck stops or anywhere else where I run into truckers on a regular basis. I’ve just had to really turn them around.”

Cardenas said the near-term loss of trucking jobs is a misconception. 

“I think it’s very important for others to know that self-driving trucks coming online aren’t going to just wipe out drivers’ jobs. I work for a company that eventually will get to the point where maybe I won’t have a job here, [but] those things are far out on the horizon.”

Ruben Cardenas, Plus safety driver

“I think it’s very important for others to know that self-driving trucks coming online aren’t going to just wipe out drivers’ jobs,” he said. “I work for a company that eventually will get to the point where maybe I won’t have a job here, [but] those things are far out on the horizon.”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler