Robotaxi safety operator is an occupation that only exists in our time, the result of an evolving technology that’s advanced enough to get rid of a driver—most of the time, and in controlled environments—but not good enough to convince authorities that they can do away with human intervention altogether. Today, self-driving companies from the US, Europe, and China are racing to bring the technology to commercial application. Most of them, including Apollo, the self-driving arm of Baidu, have started on-demand robotaxi trials on public roads yet still need to operate with various constraints.
With an associate degree in human resources, Liu has no academic training related to this job, but he has always loved driving, and he acted as the driver for his boss in a previous role. When he heard about the self-driving technologies, his curiosity pushed him to look up related jobs online and apply. Today, with his buzzcut, warm smile, and a 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 been redeveloped into a tourist attraction after serving as a sports venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. His car can’t leave the park, which was designated as a trial area for robotaxis, so his passengers are usually employees who work there or tourists visiting on weekends.
But Liu also needs to think about his next steps, as his job will likely be eliminated within a few years. He has been through several robotaxi models and policy changes in his 19-month career as a safety operator. In April 2021, Baidu acquired the license to put the safety operator in the front passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat (only within Shougang Park), and Liu subsequently switched his position and said goodbye to the steering wheel. On July 21 this year, Baidu revealed its new robotaxi model whose steering wheel can be removed, expected to be in operation in 2023.
MIT Technology Review spoke to Liu Yang in June. We asked him about how he came to get this job, what his daily life is like, and what the future holds for 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 safety operator for a self-driving taxi?
Liu Yang: It was quite a coincidence. Back when I was parking the car for an old boss, I didn’t know what self-driving was and saw that his car had a self-parking function. I was super, super curious. It was really interesting when we ordinary 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 for the interview. We had two rounds, a face-to-face interview and a road test. I think the road test for self-driving [operators] is more difficult than the road test for getting a driver’s license. When you are learning how to drive, you need to look at your left, your right and the rearview mirror; but when we are taking the test [for Baidu], you need to pay attention to all the directions, as well as what every car in front of or behind you is doing. Maybe it will suddenly change lanes and impact you.