Embark CEO: Driver attentiveness is the key to safe automatic vehicle testing

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Safety has been touted as one of the primary factors behind the development of autonomous vehicles. So, when serious accidents do occur, people both inside and outside the industry are left with the same question: How can we make autonomous safer in the testing phase?

Embark CEO and Co-founder Alex Rodrigues addressed this question at last week’s Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco, California.

Embark has partnered with Ryder and Electrolux to deploy its technology in the real world. The company has made a name for itself in the self-driving space, becoming the first company to make a cross-country trip in an autonomous truck.

Even with autonomous crashes, like the fatal Uber accident in Arizona, making headlines in recent months, industry leaders believe self-driving technology is the key to getting to zero or near-zero fatalities.

“Although trucks are incredibly useful, they’re also incredibly dangerous. About 4,000 people die on average in truck accidents each year in the United States,” Rodrigues said. “There are lots of ways truck manufacturers and governments are trying to improve this, but the only way to get to zero fatalities, which is what everyone would like, is to use self-driving vehicles, so we see this as a huge potential to improve road safety in the long term.”

In order to achieve that long-term goal, autonomous vehicles will have to successfully navigate testing. By nature, vehicles in the testing phase are less predictable than the final product, meaning safety is more difficult to guarantee.

While Rodrigues touched on engineering a safe product, the majority of his presentation focused on ensuring a safe testing environment by keeping drivers attentive.

The heavy focus on drivers is because a flawless product cannot be guaranteed during the testing phase, but Embark does guarantee that drivers can disengage the system and take over control of the vehicle whenever needed, according to Rodrigues.

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At Embark, safety starts with the driver selection process. Rodrigues emphasized that the company hires specially licensed and trained drivers, not “random, low pay employees.” It is also imperative that the drivers have good records.

“Our drivers average over a million miles of experience as professional drivers,” he said. “We match the standard of the most selective fleets in America.”

Once a driver has been invited to join Embark, they undergo an extensive training process, according to Rodrigues.

Embark’s training consists of theory and demonstration work in the classroom, self-driving practice and fault injection training on a test track and on-board training. It is capped off with a DMV-style final exam.

The company continues to monitor drivers closely even after they complete the training program, according to Rodrigues.

In an attempt to avoid driver fatigue, Embark imposes stricter driving limits than required by federal hours of service regulations. Phones are also banned while the truck is in motion, and all drivers are subject to random drug testing.

Rodrigues said the company uses real-time monitoring to ensure driver attentiveness. This technology continuously monitors key safety metrics like hands on wheel detection and eye gaze movement and provide real time feedback to drivers. If the driver appears distracted, audio and visual warnings will go off for five seconds. At that point, the system returns control to the driver.

Embark outfits test trucks with inward and outward facing cameras. The footage is audited at random and after specific events, according to Rodrigues.

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