How a former soldier wound up tackling self-driving trucks for Waymo

  • Jon Rainwater instructs safety drivers for Waymo Via, the self-driving company's freight and deliveries unit.
  • He enjoyed a lively career before joining Waymo in 2019 -- early on as an Army intelligence analyst, and later transporting hazardous waste and driving trucks for many years.
  • His exposure to the dangerous side of trucking convinced him that there had to a better way, so he was ready to become a Waymonaut when the job became available.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Editor's note: For an ongoing series, Business Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo's parent company. This is the latest profile in the series.

To read the others, click here. For a brief history of Waymo, click here. The most remarkable thing about Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous transportation spinoff once known as the Google Car project, isn't that it has developed vehicles that can drive themselves.

Rather, it's the vast range of people, from all walks of life, who are tackling the challenge. Take Jon Rainwater, for example. In the late 1970s, as he put it in an interview with Business Insider, the former Army intelligence analyst was "watching the Russians."

After Rainwater left the service, he attended Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, but later gravitated toward staffing armored cars, with the Federal Reserve as a client. That was decades ago, but his life already had the makings of a Thomas Pynchon novel. He was, at the very least, keeping things interesting.

It got even more interesting when he decided to get a Class A truck-driver's license. Rainwater borrowed a truck, practiced on his own, and passed his tests as a self-taught student. But work didn't come easy, so he wound up doing hazardous-waste jobs -- "lead concentrations, radioactive material, massive cleanups," he said -- eventually getting experience behind the wheel.

Local work in Los Angeles and San Francisco led to more substantial over-the-road work in the ensuing years, but Rainwater also saw firsthand how drivers were overworked, leading him to begin thinking that there might be a better way to move stuff around without endangering the public.

A diversity of experience at Waymo

Jon Rainwater Waymo Rainwater checks out a lidar unit on a Waymo Via truck.Waymo

Rainwater didn't necessarily expect to end up working with Alphabet. But Waymo isn't just about transporting people, like it's been doing since late 2018 with its Waymo One service in limited markets. According to CEO John Krafcik, the Waymo "driver" -- an integrated suite of hardware and software systems -- should be able to handle freight and deliveries as well.

So Waymo has a trucking unit, and in 2019, Rainwater joined it through a contractor called Transdev. "Waymo doesn't want to limit itself," he said. "It needs diversity of experience and figured this out a long time ago. They needed to have contributions from all sectors.

That's what separates them." By the time the opportunity came around, Rainwater was aware of what Waymo was up to. "When I heard about it two or three years ago, I told myself I wish I could take my experience and contribute," Rainwater said.

Rainwater started out training safety drivers for Waymo's minivans -- the company uses Chrysler Pacificas for its Waymo One -- but he's now based in Arizona and works as a commercial driver's license instructor. That move came after Rainwater effectively volunteered to create a trucking educational program for Waymo U, the organization's training arm. His responsibilities include instructing safety drivers for Waymo Via, under which the trucking effort operates.

"It's really exciting." Rainwater said of Waymo's progress, adding that the company is "testing the next generation of equipment." That equipment can now scan the entire area around an autonomous truck to a greater distance, Rainwater explained, with more detail and accuracy and at a lower cost.  Understandably, for his job, Rainwater gets around -- prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and Waymo's idling all real-world testing, he could spend 30 hours a week in a truck, rather than tied to a desk.  "Sometimes, I'd make a run to Tucson and back, about 220 miles around trip," he said of the journey from metro Phoenix in one of Waymo's Class 8 tractor trailers. "The truck can do that trip as a cruise.

I'm making sure nothing goes wrong."  Rainwater also gives Waymo's corporate partners a taste of the technology in action. But he also knows how to pace himself.

"When I was younger, I'd hit the shower, hit the door, and hit the road," he said. But now he wakes up a few hours ahead of getting into his workday, exercises, and makes breakfast. "I've really got to have my head together," Rainwater said. "I start my day slowly and evolve into it."

His first order of business, like many "Waymonauts" -- Waymo's term for its employees -- is to simply catch up on how the rapidly moving technology has developed since he went to sleep. "I review notes and logs and apps that the engineers are sending forward, to see the new advancements," he said. "This whole field changes almost daily."

Safety comes first

waymo Rainwater also worked on Waymo's minivans.Waymo

The training that Rainwater conducts has both an online aspect and an on-the-road element. The former entails some classroom instruction, assorted smartphone apps, and online testing.

It also involves protocols for radars and "laser radar," or lidar units, including how to keep these critical sensors clean. On the road, Rainwater starts new drivers out in a parking lot to accustom them with hooking up a tractor and a trailer, then moves on to familiarizing them with modified controls in the cab. "There are so many that it can be distracting," he said.

That applies even to some of the seasoned truck drivers who already had Class A licenses. Eventually, these drivers will report their on-road learnings, good and bad, back to the Waymo engineers who are perfecting the hardware, improving the software, and running what the company reported currently adds up to 10 billion simulated test miles, to go along with over 20 million real-world miles. (Waymo has been testing Class 8 trucks since 2017, in states including Georgia, California, Texas, and Arizona.) Rainwater's ultimate goal is to have the drivers he trains understand Waymo's history and match his own high standards, particularly when it comes to safety.

"I've never worked in an environment where safety has played such a big role," he said. "It's the complete opposite of my early trucking experience." A life in trucking can be a lonely one, especially for long-haul drivers. Rainwater's background has helped him to understand that, and to appreciate what Waymo wants to do: among other things, help alleviate a potential shortfall of over 100,000 truckers in the coming decade.

"The team is amazing," he said. "I'm not a one-man band."

You may also like...