As we await our autonomous car future, some experts think it won’t happen soon enough. Leanid Tsurankou, an engineer who once worked at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, is one of those impatient experts. His new company Qibus is working on a system that will let drivers use an Uber-like service with a remote human operator in control of the car. Would you trust a person who was possibly hundreds or even thousands of miles away to drive the car you’re traveling in?
- Fully autonomous vehicles are not going to be on public roads in the near future. The technology still needs to catch up to the growing demand.
- A bridge between where we are now and fully autonomous cars could be teleoperation, which is essentially an operator in another location driving a car by remote control.
- Qibus is a company based in San Francisco, founded by an engineer who formerly worked at Uber developing autonomous cars, is researching the possibility of on-demand human operators.
A teleoperated vehicle will need all the same sensors as a fully autonomous car, with the addition of more cameras. This will be a great opportunity to autonomous driving engineers to gather valuable data for the future. (Image: Getty Images)
Elon Musk and Tesla would like you to think the dawn of the autonomous driving era is already upon us. While we may be in the early stages highly-advanced driver assistance systems, there are no self-driving cars for sale at this point in 2019. Realistically, we are probably a decade out from anyone selling you a car that will drive itself from your driveway to a chosen destination.
Leanid Tsurankou came to the same conclusion not long after joining Uber as an engineer working on its autonomous vehicle program. He does believe current artificial intelligence systems are adequate for operating a car on the highway, where it mostly needs to keep the vehicle in a lane while watching out for other vehicles traveling in the same direction. It’s off the highway where AI still has a lot of learning to do.
This was the genesis of Tsurankou’s company, Qibus, which he formed in February of 2019, to bring remote control, or teleoperated vehicles to the masses. The company sees its service as something like an on-demand Uber, but in your own car. The operator in the vehicle would hit a button, which would allow a driver in another location to take over control of the car.
How teleoperation works
The car would be equipped with most of the same equipment already used by autonomous vehicle makers, plus some extra cameras. The remote operator would be sitting in front of several screens or wearing a VR headset and use controls very similar to what you find in a racing simulator – a force feedback steering wheel, pedals and controls for things like turn signals, headlights etc.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered. In the event of an accident, is the remote operator responsible, or is the person behind the wheel still ultimately responsible? In California, any driverless vehicle is currently required to have the ability for remote operation. The operator is only required to have a valid driver’s license. If this becomes mainstream, will a special license or endorsement be required?
Several companies are already moving forward with teleoperation besides Qibus. Waymo, General Motors, Drive.ai, Uber and Nissan, amongst others are also looking into this. At some point, cost will become a factor and it is easy to imagine the remote operator business being similar to call centers. Hopefully, we won’t get to a point that we’re all being chauffeured around by a bunch of teens trained on Grand Theft Auto.
Being a vehicle teleoperator might seem like the perfect side-hustle for all of us Gen-Xers raised on video games. It’s like being an Uber driver without leaving your home. But, you might want to make sure your driver spent more time on Gran Turismo rather than Grand Theft Auto. (Photo: Getty Images)
Why This Matters
Although teleoperation seems like a stop-gap, it might actually be the fastest way to autonomous vehicles. Using a hybrid system where the car can swap between a remote driver and an autonomous AI, depending on the situation, will give engineers the opportunity to test without as much risk. It will also give the passengers inside the vehicles the opportunity to adjust to riding inside a vehicle between piloted by someone, or something other than a human inside the car.