In the 50th episode of No Parking, Alex Roy sits down with Harry Campbell, AKA “The Rideshare Guy”, to talk about all things hiring, training, recruiting, and upskilling in the tech workforce. They also discuss what it takes to become a Test Specialist for autonomous vehicles, as companies like Argo AI invest more into the role.
This is a conversation originally recorded for The Rideshare Guy podcast earlier in 2021.
Harry: Alex, how are you doing today?
Alex: I’m great. It’s great to see you, Harry.
Harry: Yeah, it’s great to see you, talk to you. And you put this tweet out a month or two ago that got me interested in what it was like to be a test specialist for Argo AI. And I think before we get into that, though, what is Argo?
Alex: So Argo is a self-driving, autonomous technology developer with Ford [00:00:30] and Volkswagen as investors. Argo, is probably, I think is the largest footprint of any autonomous vehicle developer in the world. It’s testing in six cities, soon, seven and one in Germany with, we just announced a, we have a second test track. We have one Pittsburgh, another one in Germany, in Munich. And I mean, it’s hard to define what is the largest autonomous vehicle developer, [00:01:00] but our goal would have to be certainly up there with like Waymo and well, whoever else you want to … It’s up to you.
Harry: Got it. So they’ve got a big footprint; they’re testing in lots of cities. What do you think stands out and makes them unique? I mean, I guess, you yourself, you joined the company a couple years ago. What was the one thing that sort of was like, “Man, this is the company I got to get with.”
Alex: I love science fiction. I love technology. I’ve always been a first adopter for almost anything. I was always sort of skeptic [00:01:30] about timelines. When companies say they’re going to build something, they don’t, or it never comes out or you pay for it. And I’m not just talking about the big T everybody knows who I’m talking about, but almost anything. Companies are, it was the years ago, the company that was … What was the name of the company? The blood testing company, Theranos, [crosstalk 00:01:51] They promised us technology, fortune was raised. They never delivered it. And I wrote a column for years ago called Who Is The Theranos Of Mobility? [00:02:00] And to me that could include electric car companies. It could be autonomous vehicles, whatever.
And so on my other podcast, Autonocast, I went and interviewed a lot of leadership from a lot of these companies in the autonomous vehicle sector and what became apparent to me, I have total faith that autonomous vehicle technology will be developed and it will be deployed. The only question is what is the business? What is the business? [00:02:30] Because today, 100 years into aviation or 130 years with the elevator business, I mean, we just take elevators. We don’t even think about it. We get on planes and don’t even thinking about it, but the companies that were building elevators and planes a hundred years ago, most of them are gone. And so who is poised, set up to succeed in autonomous vehicles? And so among the companies I met when I was in media was Argo AI, and I interviewed Bryan Salesky and Pete Rander and Brett Browning, Bryan and Pete are the founders, [00:03:00] Brett is the head of autonomy.
I really liked these guys. They were, I felt they were honest, and that was very unusual in any sector. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, but in technology it’s pretty rare. And so I really admired them and they had a very business approach. Their point of view, and I got this right out of the gate, was if you want to deploy these autonomous vehicle technology at scale, you have to partner [00:03:30] with existing companies, manufacturers, and you have to have … You have to test in a lot of places, on the ground, in the cities where you want to deploy. And it’s going to take time. People say it was supposed to launch two years ago, last year or next year. And they always had a timeline that was the arguably one of the furthest out of anybody, back in 2017 when I first learned of them. So that was my impression of Argo [00:04:00] AI.
In 2018, re-engaged with Bryan Salesky and he offered me a position. I thought to myself, there’s no way I would ever join an autonomous vehicle developer ever. It’s impossible. But if I was going to join one, it would only be this one. It would only be this one, because I felt so strongly about the leadership and the honesty.
Harry: And so what exactly is your position at Argo AI?
Alex: So a lot of people ask me, what does the director of special operations do? [00:04:30] And so the truth is that Bryan asked me what do I want my title to be? And I made a list of interesting ones, and he’s like “That is the one I will allow you to have.” There are a couple things I can’t talk about, but among the things I can talk about pertain directly to what we’re going to talk about today, which is what Argo calls test specialists, other companies call them other things. Other companies call the mission specialists. These are not the same thing as safety drivers, but it all has to do with [00:05:00] the human beings in the autonomous test vehicles that go on the streets. It’s a hard job and requires a lot of skill and safety and understanding of technology.
And so one of the things I do as director of special operations, is I go look at things internally at Argo, like the training of test specialists and bring a fresh eye to the training. Well, first the application process, the training and [00:05:30] the ongoing evolution of the training process. It is important to understand that autonomous vehicle development’s been around for decades, but the actual business of developing them is fairly young. Google in 2010 or ’11, I think, the first stories came out about them developing this technology and the core group of people who were doing that came out of DARPA. Among them was Brian Salesky, founded Argo
And so [00:06:00] Google, 10, 11 years ago, had to create from scratch an operations arm with people who were trying to figure out how do you not just develop the technology, but once you’re developing it, how do you put the vehicles on a public road as safely as possible? Who are the human beings who will sit in the vehicle and monitor it, and not just monitor it, but take notes? And so the skill set is a fresh one, a fairly new one. And so [00:06:30] today companies like Argo, we’re not the only one, Argo has an operations arm that is constantly iterating and improving upon the training regimen, the application process, and the art and science of putting test vehicles on the street as safely as possible. So my job or my eyes and my title come together in an interesting way, because prior to joining Argo, I had attended almost every [00:07:00] form of driving school that exists in this country and overseas. Have you ever been to professional driving school, Harry? I mean you know a lot about driving.
Harry: I haven’t, but that is one thing that I’ve always respected about you, is you sort of bring this professional angle. I mean, you’re a driver … Well, I mean, you’re a driver and you have fun, but you also, I feel like you take it very seriously, with the Cannonball run stuff and everything you’ve done in the past, you take it, the driving part, seriously, not many people do that.
Alex: Yeah. I do take it seriously. And [00:07:30] one of the things I learned well, besides the obvious, anyone knows that, just passing a driving test in this country is not as rigorous as in other countries. And so that right out of the gate, probably the average American is not probably driving at the skill level of the average German. Just the way it is, cultural. And beyond that, if you go to professional driving school, and there are many, each city has something that’s just helps you pass [00:08:00] your exam, but there’s still, they’re usually often not that serious. And then you have things like Skip Barber Racing School and driving programs. And there’s also, Bob Bondurant is another one. Hagerty Insurance in recent years has launched something, I forget what it’s called, where they teach driving to teens. Almost every, all these programs have a teen day or teen weekend.
And then you have professional driving and you have race driving. And some of them, depending where [00:08:30] you go, will teach safer driving in the rain, or you learn physical car dynamics, braking, understeer, oversteer. So these programs, even the best people coming out of them, don’t automatically have the skills you need to get into an autonomous test vehicle and operate safely because there’s another set of skills required in addition. So part of my job when I first arrived at Argo two years ago, was to go through the training program. [00:09:00] It was very difficult. It was more difficult than any professional driving school I’d ever attended. An interesting component of it, and this is how I think one of the first … This is something that I kind of bonded over with Bryan Salesky when I first met him, was the all the things you have to do in an autonomous test vehicle that are not just about the driving.
[00:09:30] If you drive your whole life in the country and country roads you know, you’re probably pretty good at it. You might be pretty safe, but if you want to drive in a city center, I mean, you’ve done this, the city you live in, you get a feel for the people who live there, the kind of things they wear, which street corners have peculiarities. Our people might come out from a restaurant or in a certain way, a certain time of day. And so your familiarity with the culture of where you drive [00:10:00] is very important, and you kind of learn this almost zen like engagement with your surroundings, your situational awareness, and that is as important in an autonomous test vehicle as knowing the vehicle dynamics and how far the braking distance would be.
Harry: Yeah. Well, I think there’s definitely something to be said. I mean, a lot of people in America drive a car, right? So if you ask people, “Hey, do you know how to drive? Are you a good driver?” I’m sure everyone thinks they are and says they are. But I [00:10:30] think what I’ve experienced too in myself, when you start driving for hire, the way that you drive someone else around is a lot different than the way you might drive yourself around, right?
Alex: Of course.
Harry: So that’s even one element right there. I kind of joke with gig workers, especially Uber and Lyft drivers, you should drive kind of like you’ve got a kid in the back or your grandma in the back, someone that you care about, right? You don’t want to be going too crazy.
Alex: It’s true. I drive differently … Well, that’s not true. I drive pretty mellow all the time now. And I didn’t when I was younger. [00:11:00] There was a great commercial, Lexus had a commercial in the ’90s where they put a glass of water on the dash and you have to not spill it. And then I ended up going to a driving school where they did that. They put a … no liquid could come out of this glass. You have to really get a handle on your turning and your braking and acceleration. And then somebody else had a baby seat in the back of the driving school with a bell. And if the bell rang, you were not driving smoothly and that’s not cool. [00:11:30] So it became very clear as I went through week one of Argo AI test specialist training, that I was not going to pass. There was just no way. I was too, I was at the time, I guess I was 46, 47. And it wasn’t the age. It was that I have a lot of habits from when I was driving too fast when I was younger, just bad habits and it’s hard to break those habits. And they [00:12:00] were, many of them, were counterintuitive, even if they were safe, in my opinion, they weren’t necessarily safe by the definition of how you want to behave on a street in an autonomous test vehicle.
Harry: Well, I guess I’m even wondering, how much driving there is to be done in an autonomous vehicle, right? So why don’t you tell me. I mean, what’s it like to be an autonomous vehicle test specialist at Argo? What’s the job like, what do the duties entail? Are you sitting there in a seat, just waiting for something [00:12:30] to go wrong. Are you driving? Are you actually driving some? What’s the actual job like?
Alex: So it is surprisingly, it’s a lot more interesting and complex than people think. There’s a narrative out there because of events that took place in the past at other companies, that there’s a guy, somebody sitting there looking at their phone and then that’s it. And then something bad happens, they get blamed.
Harry: Got it.
Alex: So that’s the opposite of how it works, certainly at Argo. And I’m aware [00:13:00] that other companies take it very seriously, too. So first of all, there’s two people in the car and that will continue until it’s no longer necessary, which is a different conversation.
Harry: So there’s always going to be two people in the car, basically.
Alex: Until it’s no longer necessary and eventually you’ll go down and eventually go down to none. But so you have two people-
Harry: I mean, I think that’s smart. I mean, I think that’s … like with the Uber incident that happened, if there’s one driver sitting there, it’s pretty easy to-
Alex: Zone out.
Harry: … I think, [00:13:30] lose focus, zone out, right? And so if you have someone else holding you accountable, I think that right there to me is like a good safety check.
Alex: You’re absolutely right. The first thing, I guess, way to think about it is, when you have two people in the car, they can observe each other and the outside world. And so they’re both aware of the situation. They both have situational awareness as to what’s happening. That’s clearly critical. Also, if they develop a rapport, a professional rapport, their [00:14:00] skills, aren’t just summed, they’re almost multiplied. Because when you have that level of synchronicity with another person … We did a recent story about musicians who work at Argo in test specialist operations. And we discovered that there are many different seemingly not obvious, external outside world skills are very applicable. And among them are people who play music together, very in tune. Because you’re in the car, [00:14:30] so the person in the left seat, their hands are hovering by the steering wheel. They are looking in the mirrors and forward, kind of like a scuba diver would, is always saying check depth, check, pressure, scan your surroundings, make sure you know what’s going on.
And so they are anticipating what people outside might do. They’re also anticipating what the vehicle might too, because in autonomous mode, the vehicle has a set of behaviors. They’re anticipating that it will be optimal. [00:15:00] And so they have to make decisions all the time, is this going correctly? Or is this optimal or suboptimal? If it’s not optimal, they take over preemptively to make sure nothing happens that is not good. I mean, whatever that … It might be insignificant. And generally it is, but you want to know, and you want to be safe. So that’s the left seat person. They’re also doing something called commentary driving. Have you ever watched videos of rally [00:15:30] drivers from like Finland, desert racing?
Alex: Come on. You’ve never seen these rally cars flying over hills in the videos on YouTube? Or a Baja 1,000? Mexico, Baja 1,000. No?
Harry: Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’ve seen them.
Alex: So I did the Baja once as a navigator. And in those videos, you have a two man team, two woman team, and the right seat person is giving instructions like, “Left 250, right turn 300.” And they’re at this constant [00:16:00] dialogue between the two people, and in an autonomous vehicle, you have a variation of that, in a test vehicle. The left seat person is speaking out loud and commenting on what they observe that’s relevant to what’s happening. For example, we might be cruising along. And then I, if I was in the left seat, would say, “I see a pedestrian stepping off left to right at next intersection.” [00:16:30] So that indicates to the right seat person, if the left seat person sees it, and that if for any reason, the autonomous vehicle does not react properly the left seat person is ready to preempt anything.
Harry: Got it.
Alex: And the right seat person is listening all the time to make sure that that commentary driving is accurate. And if for any reason is not accurate, then the right seat person might say, “Dog, next corner, right side, right to left, right to left.” [00:17:00] And then that would get them back in this kind of sync zone, like a zen state where they’re both observing what’s happening. Now, the right seat person-
Harry: So they don’t have a steering wheel ready to take over like the training drivers when you’re 14.
Alex: No, there’s no steering wheel on the right seat. But the right seat person, they have a laptop. They’re also looking out the window and observing the surroundings and the right seat person can also see the sensor inputs that the autonomous vehicle sees from its sensors. You have a LIDAR, you have a radar, [00:17:30] you have camera, and they can see also a view of prediction lines. So on this display, you have all the actors in the area, or hopefully all, and then they can see prediction lines suggesting where aware people may go or cars may go. And so this relationship between the left seat and right seat is very, is critical, that it’s a healthy and happy relationship.
Alex: And so [00:18:00] this is a lot more than going to driving school. And when it’s done right, it’s like seeing a band play your favorite song awesomely. Awesomely. That’s a general summary of a day in the life of, or an hour in the life of a test specialist. And let me tell you, being in it, it’s like, imagine being in the space shuttle among a group of just regular airplanes. It’s like being in a movie.
Harry: So there’s definitely a lot going on, but you know what? It actually, [00:18:30] it’s funny. It reminds me of sort of, I mean, I’ve actually interviewed someone on my podcast before, a couple that used to drive for Uber and Lyft together, which is totally against the rules, but they made it, three or four or 500 trips before they got reported one too many times. And actually a lot of what you were mentioning, they kind of echoed and we’ve detailed other drivers, especially in the food delivery space where you are kind of allowed to do that. I mean, it’s a lot easier to do, sometimes do these things as a team. A, for companionship B, for ease of navigation, right. C, for someone to run into [00:19:00] the store, you sit there and double park, right. But there are some interesting … I think people do enjoy that team dynamic, I guess you would say, right? It tends to make things easier, it tends to, like when you find a good partner, you can definitely do these things pretty well.
Alex: It is. And it’s fascinating because there’s a rotation. The partners change over time and there’s different … and the character still come through. This is not like a robotic task, like the characters, they change, and yet [00:19:30] the job gets done. And I get to ride along in the test vehicles in Miami Beach.
Harry: What kind of cars are these?
Alex: These are Ford Fusions in the Argo fleet in Miami. In Europe, there will be VW vehicles. But I have observed many different teams doing it. And I always find that fascinating to see the little variations and how loud they talk to each other. How sometimes they’re so in sync that it’s almost like they’re telepathically linked [00:20:00] and their trust levels are really like there’s something there. And it’s beautiful to see it done. It really is.
Harry: So, you know what the most important question is, right?
Alex: Try me.
Harry: How much does it pay? Is it a good job? Is this something that people aspire to? Where do you rank that?
Alex: It’s a great job. I mean, the pay varies market to market, but these are full-time jobs with benefits.
Harry: And where, sort of what fields or where most of these test specialists coming from right now? You mentioned you had some musicians because, test specialists [00:20:30] didn’t exist just a few years ago, right? So no one grew up training to do this job.
Alex: I mean, it’s a very interesting cross section. The class I went through, which the main Argo training school is in Pittsburgh and that’s where the main track is. But the Argo applicants, or people who enter the program, come from all over the country because we have six US cities. As we will come in, and each city has a different flavor. Pittsburgh, I saw a lot of artists, visual artists [00:21:00] and musicians. You also see … That’s something that’s come through. And then almost a random cross section of people. One of the best people, I mean, I mean, they’re all great, but one of the people who was so good, they ended up being promoted and becoming one of the training managers, ran a brewery. I mean, I’ve never run a brewery, but I think a common thing is that anyone who [00:21:30] was very good at a task, at a task which may not appear complex on the outside, but gets it done consistently on time because the business depends on it, is going to be very good in operations.
Harry: Yeah, no, that’s a good example. Brewing the beer, right? I mean, it’s not the most complex task in the world, but it is very detail oriented. It’s involved.
Alex: So this is a bit of my, maybe a personal speculation, but if you look, what are the things that [00:22:00] the common skills, the common things you might say between musicians in a band, athletes on a team, veterans in the military, there’s been probably many more things I can think of. Those things are spatial awareness, a sense of, an almost an intuitive sense of time and space and the relationship of things. And there are people who drive cars very safely their whole lives, [00:22:30] who can’t explain why, but those are often the people who have a very keen sense of those things. And often of culture.
Harry: The backgrounds you mentioned too, to me, it seems like teamwork, attention to detail, right. Musicians, veterans, right? And also just, I guess, work ethic too, right? You don’t get into a band just by playing here and there. You have to practice a lot.
Alex: You’ve got to show up.
Harry: Same thing with military, right. You’ve got to go through all the training and everything. So what do you think is the most important skill, if you had to pick one, [00:23:00] to be a test specialist?
Alex: I don’t know if-
Harry: You have to pick one. That’s the question.
Alex: I can’t pick one. Focus. Focus.
Alex: Because there’s also people who come through who are, they’re painters. They go home and they paint. And that requires focus. I mean, if you don’t, I suppose if they don’t give themselves a time limit, they’ll never finish a painting, but they still care deeply about their art. So the focus would be it for sure.
Harry: The reason why I wanted to talk to you about this is because I [00:23:30] feel like actually, what you’re describing, these different profiles, it lines up with the gig economy. You have people coming from all these different areas, right. Musicians, actors here in LA, or wannabe actors here in LA, right. Veterans, retirees, right. So you have this broad cross section. And I am curious though, I guess specifically, do you think skills that might be learned in the gig economy, driving for Uber and Lyft, delivering food, doing grocery shopping, do you think that translates well to being a test specialist? And I don’t know, maybe you already [00:24:00] have some gig economy folks in your ranks already.
Alex: We certainly have. I mean, there’s certainly people who formerly were gig workers who are now test specialists. Any job that requires delivering things.,I say deliver, I mean euphemistically. Getting things done on time and focus and especially if it’s driving a car, doing it safely, those are all relevant. All of them are relevant. The one additional thing, I think, certainly, I think ride hail drivers probably have to learn this, is [00:24:30] you have to be able to manage information in motion. Many of these people, I’ve had ride hail drivers who are managing at least two phones and they are managing multiple platforms and they are calculating on the fly, using advice from your podcast on the fly. Do I take this ride or that one? Do I log in or out? Do I move here, or do I-
Harry: And frankly, they’re probably doing it while they’re driving.
Alex: Yes. They should not be.
Harry: So obviously it’s not the safest thing, but they, let’s be realistic, [00:25:00] right?
Alex: Yeah. So in those … But the ability to make decisions on the fly, using technology and managing information while in a moving car is not for everybody, and if you are a top rated ride hail driver, you probably have a … I think you have an advantage. I mean, there’s other things, and this is the part where I failed out, just reflexes. That’s something, that’s something, [00:25:30] that’s another ballgame entirely. But if you drive long enough and you do so safely, you have something that not a lot of people have and that we would like to see.
Harry: Yeah. So what can go wrong as a test specialist? What do you sort of … You’re obviously spending a lot of time, energy, and effort finding good people. What can go wrong if you’re sitting there as a test specialist? What are the things you need to watch out for?
Alex: Generally, people who have tested in are already very, very, very good. And [00:26:00] we frequently evolve the program and the bar is always moving higher because it can never be high enough given what we’re doing. I guess I’m the perfect example.
Harry: I guess I’m curious. Why do you say that? Why can’t it? Why does the bar … What’s at stake here in your mind?
Alex: Yeah. I mean, if we knew, if our culture, if the world, if we knew how to train drivers to be 100% safe, autonomous vehicle technology to be known. I mean, you could deploy it for [00:26:30] many purposes, but in order to make it safer than human, you’ve got to be always moving the bar. Always. Advancing it. And so the people who are behind the wheel monitoring it, eventually, I’m a perfect example of this. The kind of mistake that I made on the closed track in training is a kind of mistake you don’t want people to make on the street. That’s why I didn’t finish the program.
Harry: You hit something [crosstalk 00:26:58].
Alex: And so [00:27:00] imagine, it’s called fault injection testing. So you’re in the test vehicle, you’re on the track and this is called closed course testing because the progression of training is application, very difficult. Written test, pretty difficult. Then there is a driving test, which is harder than any driving test that you’d ever seen in the outside world. And if you pass that, then you go into, the actual training begins, and then eventually you get [00:27:30] to closed course testing. You’re on a track, no matter what happens, no one … There’s cones, there’s cones and barricades. And so the instructors in the right seat, and they will have a laptop. And at any moment, they can inject a different fault into the system. The fault might be a brake failure. The fault might be a throttle application, full throttle.
It might be the steering wheel jukes left or jukes right. And you have [00:28:00] to instantly compensate for that fault. And the compensation is not, let’s just say, I’ll speak only of my, of where I went wrong. I was told what to do, and I was trained what to do and I couldn’t do it. And so when you are, when I drive down the street, if my brakes were to fail, I would pull the emergency brake, jam it into drive and try to steer into anything to stop that car. Okay. [00:28:30] That’s one way to do it. That’s just how I was trained to do it. And that’s how I grew up. That’s not what you want to do in an autonomous test vehicle.
If your brakes suddenly engage, well, my instinct is to stop, let them engage and just stop the car right there, but what you want to do, the safer thing to do, is to apply throttle, to resume your prior speed and then bring your vehicle to a safe stop out of the path of traffic. [00:29:00] You want to keep the vehicle in motion at a safe speed and bring it to a safe stop, not in a lane of traffic. And let me tell you, anything goes wrong when I’m driving, I want to stop the car right then and there. That’s just me.
Harry: Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty interesting. I mean, to be honest, it sounds more like a test pilot of a plane than a car, but it also makes me wonder, I mean, I’ve been driving for close to 20 years now on this Earth, maybe a little less, 15, 20 years. And I don’t think [00:29:30] my brakes have ever cut out on me and I also haven’t ever had a sudden acceleration or anything like that. So are these situations just sort of being prepared, even if it’s very low risk or is the technology, the cars, that you guys are testing there’s higher risk of some of these things happening, because they’re new cars, new technology. Why do I, as a test specialist, why do I need to be ready for the brakes to go out?
Alex: Anything can happen. The world is … The average driver is not trained or even aware of the possibility what to do if this does happen, I [00:30:00] have had, I’ve driven a lot. I have had two brake failures in my life.
Harry: You’ve driven a lot. So I wouldn’t be surprised.
Alex: I’ve also experienced a tire depressurization at speed. And most people would jam on the brakes and then the tire would, might blow and they’d flip the car, but I knew that you should gently slow the car and bring it to a safe stop. A lot of incidents that happen, the vehicles stop in lane of traffic are hit by three more cars, is because the person encountered a problem [00:30:30] and they just abandoned their car. And they caused more crashes as a result. And so when one says safety first, safety is not like a single number or metric, safety is a set of behaviors and policies and best practices. It’s a holistic, it’s a circle. And safety is an endless list of things you have to anticipate and things you can’t anticipate, and to even put your best foot forward, you’ve got to tick as many [00:31:00] boxes as you could think of.
And then as many other boxes as maybe are possible and you got to keep going. That’s why you can never know everything, but you have to think about it. And among those things is you could have a brake failure. I mean, you asked if it was a real risk? Right out of the gate, these vehicles are not the same Ford Fusions you buy at a dealership.
Harry: Got it.
Alex: Many of the systems, the hardware systems and software systems are redundant, which you don’t find in a passenger car. And [00:31:30] you might find in some commercial vehicles, you might find in military or aerospace,
Harry: So when you say redundant, that means that there’s even less of a chance that the brakes could fail?
Alex: Of course, you want to have a backup braking system.
Harry: Backup systems.
Alex: Another example, my Tesla, great car, but not just Tesla, a lot of cars have cameras in them now for lane keeping or a radar for radar cruise control. But as Subaru has a camera based adaptive [00:32:00] cruise, if those things get dirty, they’re not going to work. And so you’ve got to get out and clean them. And if you don’t have a scraper and you’re not getting the ice off, it’s not going to work. In a properly designed autonomous vehicle, your sensors will have some ability to clean themselves so if unexpected hurricane arrives and it rains really heavily, and that the vehicle can clean its cameras itself.
Harry: So windshield wipers for cameras [00:32:30] instead of windshields is more important now,
Alex: Of course. We actually have, yeah, we have a system which blows air, uses air, the blowing against the lens. If you think about, if you get into an Uber or a taxi of any kind today, you assume the driver has done these things. And if the driver, if [crosstalk 00:32:53] Well, you do, because you know how often, when’s the last time it was raining and your taxi arrived, you didn’t [00:33:00] get in? You got in. But the instant the wipers stopped working, you would expect the driver to stop driving and you’d get out. And so an autonomous vehicle has to account for that. And so all of this is under the general umbrella of safety, and so to answer your question about what can go wrong, well, someone like me, maybe a little better, but not much better, passes fault injection testing, and then gets out in the street and then that day comes when the brakes fail [00:33:30] or the steering wheel … and that person needs to be capable of catching the wheel, handling the throttle and brake correctly and bringing the car with the vehicle to a safe stop.
Harry: Yeah. Well, I think what’s interesting for me is, I think, especially for folks in the gig economy are driving for Uber and Lyft or delivering food, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to kind of graduate, to sort of get paid more, to improve your skills. To me, this type of job seems like something that’s more like, hey, when you’re ready to take things to the next level. [00:34:00] And so that’s kind of why I wanted to learn more about it and to feature it because I feel like there are … It’s not for everyone, but there are a lot of people who kind of want that next challenge. Let’s say you go out and you do some driving, or you do some kind of logistics space work. This to me seems tougher, but more rewarding for sure.
Alex: I’ll tell you this. I mean, if you are coming out of any time in a regular vehicles as a driver and you are a focused person and a people person, [00:34:30] and you actually want to do something, help be a part of building technology, which can make the world a better place, being a test specialist is a great thing to be doing. And I’m trying to … I lose track of all the cities in which Argo is hiring, but Argo is hiring test specialists in Miami, which is a great place to live, I just moved here. In Miami, Austin, Texas, Pittsburgh, Washington, [00:35:00] DC, Detroit area, Palo Alto, and Munich, Germany for anyone who watches your channel in Munich.
Harry: You never know.
Alex: You never know. And Argo is going to add more cities and as test operations expand, some test specialists, end up moving city to city. And that’s also quite cool because there’s a foundational level of skill and teamwork that you learn [00:35:30] when you’re in one of these cities. And then there’s the local culture and flavor and knowledge of that, which makes you really great in another city. And so we often, we rotate people and teams and to get just that right mix. And it’s, I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t pass it, because part of me was hoping that maybe I would keep going and doing it in different cities, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Harry: I definitely, I think when you guys expand to LA, we’re going to have [00:36:00] to chat about getting me out there and at least trying it because that’s been … There aren’t many people who have driven for Uber and Lyft, delivered food, charged scooters. I’ve pretty much done it all in the gig economy. So I’m ready for a challenge. It did make me think, I mean, so we’ve got these test drivers, these test specialists, they’re in the cars. What is it that they’re producing? Is it data? Is that what you guys are sort of out there? I mean, is that that’s kind of what the end result is, and then kind of like, what’s the goal from all this data that’s produced?
Alex: The autonomy system [00:36:30] is always improving, and the area in which it can operate is always expanding. And so there are a few different missions among the basic, I don’t want to say basic one, because they’re all interesting. But the most common one is the test specialists are part of the testing of the autonomy. So in a perfect world, they’d both be in the vehicle, the autonomy would work perfectly. They [00:37:00] would never have to take over for any reason. And no notes are taken because there’s nothing, nothing is observed.
Harry: Yeah, nothing to do.
Alex: But on the average day, they’re sitting in the vehicle, the left seat person has their hands hovering by the steering wheel and the right seat person is observing and ready to take notes. The vehicle may operate optimally, but you still want to take a note like, “Oh, it slowed down here” [crosstalk 00:37:26] It really did well. I have seen videos, [00:37:30] because I see them every day, of things that happen in the Awesome AV Slack channel, which is where the most spectacular moves. I mean, it’s protected, meaning the really like, “Wow, like it handled that exactly as it should have.” And I’ve seen a lot of those and things like, I mean, a great example would be an unprotected left. A lot of companies say, “Oh, an unprotected left is so difficult.” Okay. Well an unprotected left, they’re not [00:38:00] all the same. And a simple one would be, there’s literally no one on the road and it’s perfect weather, you just make a left. What’s the a big deal?
I mean, sure. I mean, you have to look, that’s true. But then if you have, let’s say there’s construction and maybe [inaudible 00:38:18] and there’s some pedestrians and there’s some cyclists and you have traffic oncoming and all those things are happening simultaneously, and you go through that safely, that’s really something. A lot of people can’t do it. They get stuck. [00:38:30] Gridlock is often a function of people … I’m from New York, so I’ve seen this … inching out inching, inching, inching, inching to go, and then the light changes and they can’t go and now they’re in the grid, in the middle of the intersection and three people behind them have been inching, and now everyone’s unhappy. That’s the kind of thing I might see videos of in the Awesome AV slack channel.
So the test specialists are ensuring, hopefully, that’s just what happens. And if the left seat operator [00:39:00] has a concern, they may preemptively disengage the system and drive until they’re ready to engage it again. And the right seat operator’s taking notes. And it’s a little bit like shorthand, like a court stenographer. They have to take notes in real time. They have to be accurate.
So at the end of the day, all the data that, all the notes they’ve gathered and the data from the sensory input the car’s [00:39:30] gathered, all goes back to the office. And then a team looks at that to determine what went right, what could have been done better. And that then flows, that’s the triage team, and then that then flows to then other teams. It could be a mapping team. Maybe there needs to be a map update, maybe the autonomy itself has to be updated. And then it could be hours, [00:40:00] could be days the autonomy software may be updated.
And then, and this is where it gets really cool, and this is … When I got to see this, I had one of these almost like Top Gun moments. Remember in Top Gun when all the pilots are sitting in the aircraft carrier together. And then the guy could, Tom Skerritt comes out with a mustache and he says, “All right, everybody, the planes had been up to the radar and the planes has been updated and the mission today is X. And here’s how it’s [00:40:30] going to work.” And everyone sits and takes notes. And that’s the difference between what generic safety drivers did years ago and a test specialist does because before they get in the car that day, they had been briefed on the types of behaviors to anticipate and changes that hopefully were made to improve the system. And they take notes on that, too.
Harry: Just for a sense, how many, a test drivers you guys have right now? Are we talking dozens or hundreds [00:41:00] around the country, world?
Alex: And the offices are growing rapidly, especially in Miami. And this is, which is why I put up that Tweet because people talk about Miami as a town with all this tech. And I’m like, “Listen, the best tech jobs in Miami right now, I would argue, or the most fun tech jobs, and they’re good jobs, is at Argo AI Operations.”
Harry: Yeah. Well, I do think this is like a pretty cool new driving job of the future, right? I mean, it didn’t exist just a few years ago, [00:41:30] but it does make me wonder, my final question for you. What happens to all of these drivers in the future? Because your end goal is that these cars are all autonomous, right? So are these test specialists, are they done? Is this a discrete timeline, or what’s the plan there?
Alex: First of all, the timeline for the development of autonomous vehicles and the deployment ubiquity around the world, is not in our lifetimes. I mean, so, I’m 49. [00:42:00] I think, I don’t know how much younger you are than I am.
Alex: 34. If you think about how many cities there are and how many road miles there are to travel around the world and how many people will be needed to help test the cars, deploy them. I mean, our operations are not just about test specialists in the cars. We have a significant team of people who maintain the cars. And now we’ve got, we have people who used to be street racers. [00:42:30] And we have a gentleman named Andre who actually managed an endurance racing team in the Middle East.
And autonomous vehicle fleets, they don’t fix themselves. They don’t clean themselves. They might eventually, they will drive themselves. But until they, even once they can drive in snow and other conditions, you’re still going to need people to maintain them.
Harry: There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Alex: Yeah, there’s work to be done. And let me give you [00:43:00] an example. There are businesses in this country that are absolutely enormous, that are invisible to most people. The Amazon delivery truck is always going to need a guy to make sure the right thing’s coming on and off that vehicle. You could roboticize some of that. You could make the vehicle self-driving, but a human being taking the phone call saying the package was mixed up, someone’s got to do something about it. If you think about the logistics of trucking, [00:43:30] you could, I mean, one could, autonomize all kinds of things, but human beings in the system remain essential because AI is not an artificial intelligence, such a nonsense word, because it encompasses so much.
We project, people project onto it what they want to project onto it. But human beings have a critical place in making systems work. And an autonomous vehicle is its own self-contained system. But the actual thing, the machine, is part of a broader system. [00:44:00] And that is the system of commerce and logistics. And there will always be people involved in that. AI has a long way to go, and there are pieces of it you can bite off and commercialize now and soon. And there are pieces that you can never commercialize. And in between here and there, fortunes will be earned by companies that know what to automate and who make that work.
Harry: All right. Well, so if I’m someone who just listened to this interview and is ready to go sign up as an Argo autonomous [00:44:30] vehicle test specialist, where do I go? What do I do? And where do I mention that Alex Roy sent me so my application goes to the front of the line?
Alex: All I get a brownie points.If anyone signs up as a result of this, but you can go to our website, it’s www.argo.ai and click on join us. And then you can search by city. And look under vehicle operations, and I’ve met some of the most interesting people ever.
Harry: [00:45:00] Very cool. I also recommend following Argo AI on Twitter, you guys tweet out some good stuff. I also, I really liked this picture. I pulled it up again, Argo AI has on their Twitter profile, it’s like 25 Ford Focuses with all the technology and everything all lined up perfectly. Whoever parked those and then took the car should get a raise. So that’s a nice photo.
Alex: Guess what. You will see, if you go into any Argo Depot, at least the ones I’ve been to, at 6:45 in the morning, it always [00:45:30] looks like that. They are maintained. It’s really something.
Harry: It is pretty cool too, to see, like you mentioned you in the Slack channel, those videos and kind of the self-driving videos that are put out there by the companies often, right? How we handle all these, you know, like the duck walking across the street with the chickling. All those situations, like what the car is seeing in the technology site, what it looks like and what the car is seeing, right. So it’s all cool stuff.
Alex: It is.
Harry: So definitely [00:46:00] I’m excited, actually. I want to try this out as a job, so hopefully I can pass the test someday.
Alex: It’s really cool. And if I may also mention, we have, I’m working on a project at Argo called Ground Truth, which is, it’s a site, which is attempting to tell the honest and true story of self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence. That’s how it actually works, as opposed to, it’s going to take over the world, which it is not. So that that website is groundtruthautonomy. [00:46:30] com. And if I may plug my podcast, it’s the No Parking Podcast.
Harry: Definitely. We’ll leave links to all of that in the show notes. And I don’t know if you remember, I did call you the most interesting man in mobility, I think, on the last podcast. So if there’s anything else you’re doing that’s interesting. Now’s a chance to plug it otherwise [crosstalk 00:46:49] until next time.
Alex: Thanks a lot, Harry.
Harry: You always have a lot of interesting things going on.
Alex: Right now I’m really focused on actually making my daily human driving [00:47:00] safer because I learned a lot of humility in that training program.
Harry: All right, Alex, take care.