Robotaxi security operator is an occupation that only exists in our time, the result of evolving technology advanced enough to dispense with a driver—most of the time and in controlled environments—but not good enough to convince the authorities that they can do it. away from human intervention. Today, self-driving companies in the US, Europe and China are racing to bring the technology to commercial application. Most of them, including Baidu’s self-driving arm Apollo, have started on-demand robotaxi trials on public roads, but they have yet to operate with several limitations.
With an associate’s degree in human resources, Liu has no academic background related to this job, but has always enjoyed driving and acted as his boss’s driver in a previous role. When he heard about self-driving technologies, his curiosity pushed him to search for related jobs online and apply. Today, with his warm smile and distinctive Beijing accent, Liu “drives” a robotaxi five days a week in Shougang Park, a 3.3-square-mile former power plant in Beijing that has become an attraction tourist after serving. as a sports venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. His car cannot leave the park, which was designated as a test area for robotaxis, so its passengers are usually employees who work there or tourists who they visit on weekends.
But Liu also needs to think about his next steps, since his job will likely be eliminated in a few years. He has gone through several robotaxi models and policy changes during his 19-month career as a security operator. In April 2021, Baidu acquired the license to put the security operator in the front passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat (inside Shougang Park only), and Liu subsequently changed positions and stepped down from the wheel . On July 21 this year, Baidu revealed its new robotaxi model from which the steering wheel can be removed, 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 day-to-day life is like and what the future holds for him in an occupation designed to disappear soon.
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. When I was parking an old boss’s car, I didn’t know what self-driving was, and I saw that his car had a parking function. I was super, super curious. It was very interesting when we common people tried it for the first time. After that, I wanted to know more.
TR: How long have you been driving?
Liu: Twelve, thirteen years.
TR: Do you remember what the interview process was like?
Liu: I was extremely nervous when I went to the interview. We did two rounds, an in-person interview and a road test. I think the road test for autonomous driving [operators] it is more difficult than the road test to get a driver’s license. When you learn to drive, you have to look left, right and in the rearview mirror; but when we are doing the test [for Baidu], you need to pay attention in all directions, as well as what each car in front or behind is doing. Maybe it will suddenly change lanes and hit you.