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Testing Autonomy, From Brainstorm to Boulevard

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Nov. 23, 2020—Across the automotive industry, autonomous vehicles seem to be sitting atop each and every trend list, though you’ll scarcely see them on the roads. In order for a vehicle to make it to public roads, it must undergo a variety of testing practices to ensure it will not be a danger to its passengers and other motorists. 

Testing for any vehicle is rigorous, but testing for “driverless” cars takes place on an entirely different racetrack. Earlier this month, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education hosted a webinar that dove headfirst into the importance as well as the fragility of testing autonomous vehicles. 

Panelists Sagar Behere, director of systems and safety engineering at Aurora, and Bernard Soriano, deputy director at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, offered insight into what it takes to get an autonomous vehicle on a public roadway. 

Types of Testing

“We don’t start by driving on public roads,” said Behere, “There is a sequence we follow.” 

At Aurora, the engineers and safety drivers perform a multitude of simulations including motion planning simulations, perception simulations, and control simulations, all before the vehicle’s tires ever reach the real world. 

Behere said that at Aurora, they tested over 2.2 million simulations in which the car made an unplanned left turn before ever taking it to a public road. 

“You can create so many different scenarios and respectability studies,” said Soriano, “But simulation cannot be used as the one and only tool.” 

Behere put it simply when he said, “You use road-testing as a way to validate your simulations.” 

Choosing A Safety Driver

Behere said hiring the right candidate to be a safety driver is of utmost importance because of the responsibility and dedication it takes to bring an autonomous vehicle onto real-world roadways. 

At Aurora, safety drivers go through extensive training to ensure that they not only know how to operate the vehicle, but know how to stay in control of the vehicle, given any situation. He says Aurora safety drivers must adhere to company policies including controlled substances and a maximum number of driving hours. 

“They’re not just drivers, they’re among the foremost valuable employees that we have keeping us safe and helping us advance,” Behere said. 

For California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Soriano said similar policies are in place for safety drivers. “Our drivers can’t be an at-fault driver, have a DUI, or have more than one point on their driving record,” said Soriano. Furthermore, he said the drivers’ records are consistently surveilled, should any points come up against their record. 

Giving Companies the Green Light

For companies hoping to deploy their own autonomous vehicles on public roadways, Soriano said there is a checklist that must be met for both state and federal regulations, but the lines can get blurred. 

States are responsible for the “operation of the vehicle” he said, which refers to licensing and registration. Whereas the federal government is responsible for keeping the passengers safe, which is done via seat belts, air bags, and other safety measures. But autonomous vehicles tread the line between the two, he said. 

In California, for an automated vehicle to reach the roadways with a safety driver, manufacturers need to certify that they have tested their vehicles in a safe way by reporting the number of crashes they’ve experienced in addition to their mandated annual disengagement report. 

For companies that want to implement their AVs without a safety driver, Soriano said they must do all of the above as well as submit a guide for first responders to use to safely and efficiently interact with the autonomous vehicle, should the need arise. 

Keeping the Public Informed

Regardless of how many simulations are run, or how many hours safety drivers put in, autonomous vehicles will not make it to market unless the public trusts them. 

“Communication is paramount,” said Soriano. “In the end, we need public acceptance and that is only going to come about when they see the technology working.” 

Behere argues that the testing of autonomous vehicles is being conducted under a microscope like never before, and “That is why it is our job to educate the public,” he said.

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