The Surprising Musicality of an Autonomous Vehicle Test Team
David Pinkerton (just “Pink” to his friends), knows what it feels like to be “locked in.” When he performs with his heavy metal band A Moment In Pompeii at Howlers bar in Pittsburgh—sweat streaming down his face, his vocal cords straining, his fingers raw from frantic guitar strumming—he’s never felt so in tune with his bandmates, his instrument, and his environment. That is, until he started his job as a Test Specialist at Argo AI, a self-driving technology startup headquartered in the city.
“Some people, once you’ve played music with them, you’re just able to vibe with them, your communication just lines up,” he says. “The same thing happens with Test Specialists as well. We have to be in sync with each other, and our test vehicles.”
A critical part of Argo’s operation, Test Specialists (TSs) work in pairs to manage the self-driving vehicles deployed in Argo’s six test cities around the country: Austin, TX; Detroit, MI; Palo Alto, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Miami, FL; and Washington, D.C. One TS sits in the driver’s seat, ready to take manual control of the vehicle at any moment. The other is in the passenger position, rigorously notating the self-driving system’s actions and logging encounters on a laptop while scouring the road outside. Test Specialists work in tandem to log every mile driven by Argo’s fleet, go on data-collecting missions to build 3D maps of the streets, and provide essential feedback about system performance to the engineers who develop the Argo self-driving system (SDS).
It’s a job best suited to people who are talented multi-taskers, who can focus intently on multiple inputs at once, who are skilled and eager collaborators, and who can follow strict parameters, while also improvising as needed. As it turns out, many of these same characteristics are shared by people who excel at making music.
After joining Argo in 2018, Pink quickly realized that he was far from the only musician in his cohort. There was Paul Sheppick, bass player for the Polka band Mon Valley Push, and Christopher McNeal, a classically trained jazz musician. There was Alexander Church, who at the time played the keyboards for another Pittsburgh indie act, The Stonethrowers. And Ben Stanton, Pink’s best friend, with whom he played guitar growing up, and who worked briefly as a Test Specialist before transferring to a role in site support. Later, vocalist/guitarist David Wheeler of Pittsburgh rockers OutsideInside joined the group.
Many other Argo Test Specialists moonlight as musicians—there’s a particularly high concentration of drummers in Miami, along with a singer and bass player in Austin, plus a harmonica player in Washington, D.C. The hiring trend is unintentional, but it’s one that, according to Tony Warywoda, director of Autonomous Vehicle Systems (AVS) operations, is not entirely surprising. “Being a musician is indicative of a person who is autodidactic by nature,” he says. “That experience of being in a band, or a varsity sports team, or a debate team—you’re used to relying on members of your team, while also learning to be outspoken in that context. There’s a reason we keep seeing people with those backgrounds become Test Specialists.”
Striking the Right Chords
Before joining Argo, Pink would rehearse and tour on nights and weekends, working as a Chevy salesman by day to pay the bills. When a coworker told him about a new role called a Test Specialist at an autonomous vehicle startup in town, Pink was immediately drawn to it. “I liked the idea of working on something cutting edge,” he says. One month’s worth of rigorous interviews and training later, Pink was road-ready.
Within a matter of days, he started noticing himself sinking into a familiar mindset. He and his TS partner were acting a whole lot like, well, a band. As a unit, they would observe their surroundings and the SDS’s ability to maneuver the vehicle through them, noting anomalies and potential hazards on the roads. They gradually fell into a rhythm. They learned to communicate with fluency and to sense and react based on minor shifts on the road. Just as he would do with his A Moment in Pompeii bandmates, Pink and his co-pilots would lock in with each other completely.
And Pink wasn’t the only one to notice this phenomenon. OutsideInside guitarist David Wheeler could also feel the link between playing music and testing an autonomous vehicle. For Wheeler, it came down to internalizing the fundamentals. Just as he riffs and improvises more confidently onstage after mastering the basics of guitar theory, Wheeler felt more confidence as a TS because of his baseline command of driving, his foundational knowledge of cars and how they work, and the weeks he spent in Argo’s Test Specialist training—first in a classroom on Argo’s campus, then on a closed test track, then finally on public roads in Pittsburgh. “Having my driving fundamentals down means I can adapt to the constant changes and updates in the software,” he says. “I can improvise in the face of whatever the roads throw at us on any given day.”
Of course, not every TS in Pittsburgh is a musician on the side. Others have experience with team sports, or are performers and creatives used to group collaboration. They’re former teachers, bartenders, salespeople—not your average bunch of tech-company vets. “I appreciate that there are people from all different lines of work and industries working as Test Specialists,” Wheeler says. “When Argo is hiring for this role, they really look hard at your soft skills and your potential. They give people a chance to excel based on other things—not just what’s on your diploma.”
Warywoda agrees with Wheeler, adding that, “If you come from an all-tech background and you think that’s enough, we know right away that you’re not the right fit. You have to be humble, and believe in the mission, and you have to be willing to learn a whole new vocabulary, because this stuff is being built from the ground up.”
Wheeler, Pink, and the original Pittsburgh cohort of TS musicians have all moved into new jobs within the company—but they’re still making music. Although for Pink, with some added distractions recently. “My band has some new music in the works,” he says, “but COVID-19 has closed all the venues. Also, I have a kid and just bought a new house, so that’s keeping me busy right now.”
Still, he’s looking forward to a time after the pandemic, when he can finish a day’s work with his “band” of Test Specialists, before rejoining his other band onstage at Howlers. Then he will lock in once again, and make some music.
To learn more about becoming a Test Specialist, check out the Argo AI Job Listings page. Click on “Vehicle Operations” in the dropdown menu to see all available positions.