Tech Company Testing Remote Operators as Self-Driving Car Backups
It seemed like science fiction back in January when we excerpted The Holy Driver: When Virtual Meets Reality, a story about a driving game champ who learns he’s been piloting actual cars in another country, but tech moves fast. Just two months later, in March, we outlined how 5G communications technology could hasten the arrival of driverless cars by employing teleoperated driving—essentially transforming vehicles into full-scale remote-control cars. Now in August we learn that MIRA GmbH, a subsidiary of German automotive and arms manufacturing giant Rheinmetal AG is rolling out a pilot trial of just that very idea with its teleoperated driving system in Düsseldorf, Germany.
What is Teleoperated Driving?
Teleoperation simply refers to the physical separation of the driver and the vehicle they operate. In short, it’s remote control of a car by way of secure, encrypted data sharing between the onboard vehicle sensors and a remote driving console located elsewhere. In the Düsseldorf pilot project, this communication happens via 4G/5G cellular connection.
Wait, you must be asking—why is a remote operator needed for a self-driving car? Wouldn’t that make it, um, not self-driving? Good catch. The idea here is to utilize the remote driver as a backup in place of the human monitors currently employed by companies testing self-driving cars. Today, these drivers ride along, often in the driver’s seat, ready to intervene in case the machine does something unexpected or dangerous and control needs taken back from the software.
What Sensors Are Needed for Teleoperated Driving?
With a full suite of self-driving car sensors (radar, lidar, cameras, high-precision GPS, etc.), the remote driver can serve the same role as a safety driver required in early self-driving car pilot projects. Seated at a driving-game console with wrap-around screens, the tele-driver can monitor the traffic and obstacles confronting the vehicle and sort out difficult “edge cases” that today’s autonomous-driving control computers struggle with. But it’s also possible to remotely control cars with less sophisticated sensor suites, perhaps at lower speeds and in controlled environments—much the way Tesla’s Smart Summon feature allows some cars today to safely park and un-park themselves like an e-valet.
Teleoperated Driving for Full Self-Driving Vehicles
MIRA envisions a few initial use cases. In fully equipped self-driving cars, a remote human driver can remain “on call” in the event of an “unsolved driving task” arising. The remote driver can then either indirectly solve the problem, for example by surveying the vehicle’s surroundings and selecting from among multiple options posed by the vehicle. Or it can be done directly by assuming full control of the vehicle’s steering, braking, and acceleration. MIRA’s teleoperation technology currently meets German requirements for supervised operation of a self-driving or autonomous vehicle.
Remote-Control Driving for Non-Self-Driving Vehicles
Cars that have many of the environmental sensors but lack the sophisticated AI and computing power for full self-driving can be piloted full-time by remote-control for tasks like picking up or delivering a rental or ride-sharing vehicle, or for first- or last-mile deliveries using vehicles that are only equipped to drive themselves on limited-access highways.
The Dusseldorf Pilot Project
MIRA’s teleoperation technology currently conforms to German traffic safety regulations for cars, trucks, and special vehicles as approved by the City of Düsseldorf and the regulatory body TüV Rheinland. A trial has been started to demonstrate and evaluate the various operating modes customers may take advantage of in Dusseldorf.