|Being hired by Waymo was the goal of safety drivers / Photo Credit: Sundry Photography (via Shutterstock)|
Ira Boudway and Joshua Brustein of Bloomberg, a financial news website, reported that Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo ferried riders around the Phoenix area in robotaxis without human safety drivers last fall. However, the driverless rides in Arizona don’t spell the end for Waymo’s human operators. Last summer, the firm finalized—albeit quietly—a multiyear contract with Transdev North America, which provides streetcar conductors, bus drivers, and other transportation workers to airports and cities. The partnership is an acknowledgment that the company will be relying on test drivers for years.
Rocky Garff, Waymo’s head of operations, said, “For the foreseeable future, as we expand and are driving in some of these new areas, it’s critical that we have vehicle operators. They’re part of the equation that gets us to fully self-driving.” The agreement provides test-driving as a service rather than supply Waymo with contractors. It also puts more legal space between Waymo and the drivers, allowing them to keep Transdev’s employees indefinitely. Under the new contract, Waymo will require bidders to guarantee they’d hire drivers as full-time employees as well as to formulate a strategy for their career growth. For many safety drivers, being hired by Waymo was the ultimate goal, even considering it as a “white badge.”
But Transdev’s record is filled with controversies. For example, the company faced multiple strikes in recent years from unions representing employees in public transportation services the firm operates in the US. It also received several open National Labor Relations Boards complaints with regard to working conditions. Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California at Hastings who specializes in gig work and the tech industry, said tech firms are directly recruiting as few as people as possible “in part to avoid liability,” which is germane in fields such as the AV industry. If a test driver operating a self-driving car got into an accident, Waymo could say it hired Transdev for its expertise in test-driving. “They could just employ everyone, protect them and say, ‘This is the cost of doing business in the autonomous-driving world,’” Dubal said. However, Waymo did not say whether liability concerns were a factor in working with Transdev.