Google’s self-driving corporate sibling, Waymo, is preparing to launch a commercial robotaxi service outside Phoenix. As that’s happened, the focus of the program has shifted from the technical details of lasers and sensors to the operational details of how to build the system that surrounds the driverless vehicles.
And although they are the defining (or at least the most charismatic) achievement of 21st-century robotics, it looks like these machines will be surrounded by scores of humans tending to their needs, resolving problems that the cars don’t know they have, and mentoring them through traffic situations too confusing even for an artificial intelligence that’s driven 8 million miles on the road.
What humans lack in regularity, precision, and relentlessness, we (typically) make up for with manual dexterity, adaptability, and excellent visual sensors. Anywhere Waymo can’t quite make things work automatically, in come the people. Humans are the masking tape, the glue, the putty, the clamp. Humans are the hack.
Waymo’s cars themselves are fully driverless, but the company employs four robot-tending teams at its maintenance headquarters in Chandler, Arizona: technicians, dispatchers, “fleet response,” and “rider support.” While it’s not hard to imagine what the mechanics and dispatchers do—they keep the cars on the road and in the right places—the last groups are a little different.