Startup Tries Out Remote Operators Who Use Screens to Drive

  • Cars without people inside driving them have been cruising the streets of Berlin as a test for autonomous-vehicle company Vay.
  • They’re not fully autonomous, instead using “teledrivers,” which is similar to human-in-the-loop autonomous technology, except drivers in a central location operate a connected vehicle to the location where a Vay user wants to be picked up. Then, the customer drives to their location before a remote operator drives the car away.
  • Vay said it will start its ride-hailing service in Europe, and maybe the U.S., next year.

    Based on the original definitions of different levels of driving automation published by SAE International, Vay’s autonomous technology doesn’t exist. That’s because the strategy Vay is taking to develop autonomous vehicles involves not trying to make them totally autonomous, at least not right away. Fortunately, SAE recently updated the definitions to include remote drivers and remote assistants, and this is where Vay’s plan to involve what it calls “teledrivers” will fit in.

    Vay, which is based in Germany, has been testing a slightly different technology on the streets of Berlin that relies on teledrivers doing most of the work, operating the cars from computer stations that have a basic driver’s-seat setup—including a steering wheel, pedals, and several monitors to see what’s around the car—alongside a network that, vitally, doesn’t suffer from too much latency.

    vayio semiautonomous car via YouTube

    Others in the autonomous space have used the term HIL (human in the loop) to describe this kind of part-time human solution to autonomous driving. The basic idea behind HIL is that the car can handle the driving most of the time, but whenever it can’t navigate a particular section, the remote operator steps in to get the car past whatever hazard might be too hard for the automated-driving components to handle.

    vayio semiautonomous car via YouTube

    Vay’s service will operate like a sort of humanless Uber and also a sort of car-rental service. Users will request a Vay ride, Uber style, and the remote-controlled car will arrive at their location. Then, the user will drive the car wherever they want to go and, finally, the Vay vehicle is teledriven to the next user. Bloomberg notes that Vay’s future plans include a fully remotely operated ride-hailing service so riders never have to be drivers.

    At some point down the road, the company’s mission is to help get Europe “back to the forefront of the race to develop driverless vehicles which will solve many of today’s transportation challenges, including air pollution, traffic jams, and traffic-related deaths, high costs of transportation and long commutes.” The company said it intends to launch a driverless certified “commercial-mobility service” on public roads in Europe (and maybe the U.S.) in 2022.

    Vay has already hired a fair number of Silicon Valley and automotive industry talent, Bloomberg said, including Google, Audi, and Elon Musk’s Boring company. Vay CEO Thomas von der Ohe previously worked at Amazon on its Alexa service and at self-driving startup Zoox, while Vay’s co-founders used to work at Skype. Bloomberg reported that Vay has so far raised around $30 million from investors.

    Vay is busy hiring and looks to bridge two worlds: “software and product experience from Silicon Valley and automotive hardware & safety engineering from Europe.” One of the positions is a principal video engineer who would be responsible for optimizing the cars’ video streams for maximum quality and low latency.

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