Waymo explains how it keeps test riders attentive and safe from fatigue

In the past I have written several times about the attention problem with advanced driver assistance systems. The fundamental problem is that when you don’t have to drive the vehicle, it is difficult to stay alert and awake, and a number of studies confirm this. Waymo sums it up like this:

“…there is a general link between an increasing degree of automation and a corresponding reduction in human performance. This general phenomenon is called the “irony of automation”. In other words, the better the automation, the less attention human drivers will pay to traffic and the system, and the less able they will be to regain control.”

But there aren’t hundreds or thousands of accidents that pile up with systems like Tesla Autopilot, despite the number of people using such systems on the road.

We have to keep in mind that systems like Autopilot are quite mature. Are they perfect? Obviously not. But they also don’t make frequent catastrophic mistakes. Thus, the attention problem does not occur at the same time as a system error that causes a large number of accidents.

What about people testing less mature systems? As it turns out, Waymo has put a lot of thought into this as it has sent its test riders out with software that can make a lot of mistakes at the worst of times.

In a recent paper released by Waymo, the company drops the beans about its methods and strategies for avoiding driver fatigue and inattention issues. While this information may not be helpful to most drivers, hopefully the folks who test other systems (including Tesla’s FSD Beta and Autopilot) can get some good ideas from what they’ve shared.

Waymo says the fatigue risk management (FRM) framework revolves around three things: (1) fatigue prevention; (2) fatigue monitoring; and (3) reduction of fatigue. On a practical level, it involves (1) continuing education; (2) awareness and reporting; (3) real-time vigilance assessment; (4) additional involvement; and (5) adaptive planning. Let’s see what each of these things means.

Secondary education

Waymo begins her efforts with education. If the test riders understand the problem and how to deal with it (the other four blocks), they can avoid fatigue-related accidents.

Waymo says specialists need continuous, comprehensive instruction to prevent, detect and manage fatigue so they are always aware of the risks associated with fatigue. The best approach starts with how to prevent fatigue using proven methods (such as self-care and good habits) before moving on to how to educate yourself about the signs of fatigue and what measures can be taken to combat them right now and mitigate future risks.

This idea extends far beyond Waymo’s operations. Many owners of vehicles with ADAS systems are unaware that a fatigue problem exists, or deny it when people try to say they could fall asleep while using systems such as Autopilot or FSD Beta. Being aware of the risk and learning more (below) about how to avoid it is the first step to staying safe.

Awareness and reporting

To be more aware of their own fatigue, Waymo’s test riders are required to complete Periodic Fatigue Surveys (PFS). The PFS, an online survey that specialists can use on their own devices, is a practical way for them to report fatigue to supervisors and get help in the short and long term. However, it is not intended to be used by employers as a performance measurement tool. In each PFS survey, specialists provide a subjective self-assessment of their level of fatigue or alertness.

This gives drivers the opportunity to report their actual situation to their supervisors, and this allows supervisors to take action to keep things safe. It also adds responsibility to both drivers and supervisors who may be tempted to do what dispatchers do to truck drivers (force them to keep going). Actions in response to high fatigue include taking breaks, prescribing a period of physical activity, and other things that generally work well in preventing fatigue and inattention.

Real-time Vigilance Assessment

Waymo uses Driver Monitoring Systems (DMS) in much the same way as many ADAS systems, but with more monitoring and communication. An automated fatigue monitoring system can provide multimodal alerts to the autonomous specialist, including a tone, a vibration under their seat and a flashing light. It can also directly provide remote human judges with a real-time video feed.

Additional involvement

The framework we discussed above includes comprehensive prevention and monitoring of fatigue. But Waymo says they just aren’t enough. They say active intervention measures should be included in a comprehensive ORB, according to data analysis from more than 10 years of on-road operations. Additional contact with the driver also helps to keep people alert and awake. This comes in two forms: interactive cognitive tasks (to keep the mind awake) and secondary alerts.

They don’t go into detail about what a cognitive task is, but they go into great detail about how the tasks are assigned. During monotonous driving tasks, both the driver and an automated computer program can assign these small tasks to keep people awake. A description of the tasks sounds like the driver is given a quiz or questions about the weather and road conditions, which they can answer by pressing a button on the steering wheel.

This is a lot like suggestions we’ve all heard in Driver’s Ed telling us to sing along to music or do something else to avoid fatigue, but much more exclusive and timed based on studies.

Secondary warnings for manual driving are related to the vehicle’s transition from automatic to manual, which follows a primary warning that is activated at the time of the control transition. A secondary warning is used to minimize the chance of an unintentional control transition from automated to manual (for example, when fatigue or attention is distracted).

Adaptive planning

Finally, Waymo doesn’t follow strict schedules that could exacerbate fatigue. Instead, they have both read the relevant academic literature and done their own studies to determine how to plan driving time.

When it comes to shifts, they make sure to give proper breaks and free time and plan shifts so that fatigue is kept to a minimum. They also provide good breaks to prevent fatigue from building up during a shift. Finally, they aren’t afraid to give a tired test rider other work if they just can’t ride safely that day. Waymo has plenty of other work to do and puts drivers on that job to keep them and the public safe.

We can all learn from these techniques

Waymo’s study and implementation of these techniques is a lot more complicated than I’ve presented here. If you’re curious, I suggest you read the entire paper. Anyone who drives a lot, especially those who test things like FSD Beta, can learn a thing or two about staying awake and alert.

Featured image provided by Waymo.


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