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  • By John R. Quain

Teleoperation Gets Serious, and an Autonomous Shuttle Heads to NYC

What was once considered an afterthought, remote control operation of autonomous vehicles is starting to become another area of serious contention.

With the growing realization that machine learning (a.k.a., AI) will not be sufficient to cover unusual, so-called edge cases encountered by self-driving cars, it has become glaringly apparent that some sort of remote backup system will be needed, at least in the foreseeable future. (Indeed, teleoperation requirements are likely to be included in some state regulations, such as in California and Florida.)

Waymo and others like Toyota provide relatively crude systems designed merely to provide the most basic assistance in case of emergency (like drawing an escape route on an Etch A Sketch device). However, last year, Phantom Auto took a more sophisticated approach with a full-on, live, 360-degree video feed and remote driver. The company bonds several cellular channels together to render a live remote connection over which an operator using a gaming wheel and pedals (and multiple screens) can "drive" the car.

Last week, another teleoperations company entered the market, Designated Driver. CEO Manuela Papadopol explained to me that the company's emphasis is on safety, delivering a real-time video view and control of an autonomous vehicle in case of emergency. (AV package supplier AutonomousStuff will offer the kit to customers.) Papadopol and CTO Walter Sullivan also raised another issue with me, that of redundancy.

Usually, teleoperation is conceived of as needed when there's an obstacle or hazardous condition that a self-driving vehicle doesn't recognize. But Papadopol and Sullivan pointed out that there could also be a situation where there's a sensor malfunction or even a fender bender that essentially disables the autonomous program. To get a car safely to the side of the road or to a safe drop-off location would then require an independent remote control system.

Meanwhile, back at the autonomous ranch, another purveyor of simple shuttles announced it was going to be toddling around another corporate campus-like environment, this time in New York City. Over in Brooklyn later this year, Optimus Ride will start running a tiny autonomous shuttle in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The shuttles will only operate on private roads and at less than 20 mph. Still, it's another example of how the closed-course autonomous vehicles are becoming increasingly common.

Not that it should come as much of a surprise given that we've been riding on autonomous trains at airports for years.

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