While We Wait for Self-Driving Cars

03 of March of 2021

Self-driving cars are no longer a thing of the distant future. Level 5 autonomous vehicles are slated to be driving on our roads by 2030.

While we’ll have to keep waiting for this, we are seeing intermediate uses that don’t quite have complete autonomy, but there are vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems. The vehicle is no longer a passive element; now, it interacts with us. It tells us how far we are from that column behind us when we’re parking, whether there is ice on the road, or the date of our next inspection.

The origins of remote-controlled vehicles

Humankind’s first attempts to steer vehicles remotely date back to 1925 when American engineer Francis Houdina remotely drove 19 km from Broadway to Fifth Avenue in New York. Shortly after, in 1940, Norman Bel Geddes did the same with an autonomous vehicle powered by electricity and radio-controlled.

The industrial designer was known for his designs, which were extravagant but futuristic at that time. As a side-note, this vehicle took the shape of a teardrop.

Norman Bel Geddes's teardrop-shaped vehicle Designer Norman Bel Geddes’s teardrop-shaped vehicle. | Picture via MCNY

Forty years later, in 1980, Ernst Dickmanss used a radio control system and electrified pavement to drive a vehicle remotely in Germany.

Beyond the curiosity and ingenuity required to steer a vehicle from a distance, let’s consider remote operation as an intermediate step. This shows us the set of benefits this offers, which has more and more organizations setting their sights on this path.

In short, remote operation requires a control center with several screens that act as an interface between car and driver, as well as a steering wheel kit and drive pedals that allow the vehicle to be driven at a distance. This control center gives the remote driver information on the car’s surroundings. The vehicle carries all of the embedded technology: position and audio sensors, cameras, modems, and more.

Benefits of remote driving

This sort of solution provides significant flexibility in operation and allows for cost optimization. We could see it implemented in a large logistics warehouse, for instance. There, a solution of this kind would make it possible to reduce the number of trips required to transport goods. Usually, a pick-up car is needed to transport some operators who then carry out other tasks. With remote operation, these trips would be a thing of the past.

Another advantage associated with this solution is the higher efficiency standards – time spent in non-productive activities is reduced – and increased safety in certain dangerous environments. This would be the case for construction areas that are difficult for humans to access, as well as certain mining activities.

However, it looks like these types of solutions will not entail a single vehicle operated at a distance. They instead appear to be on a path toward having one interoperable platform that manages a varied fleet, maximizing efficiencies regardless of the type of vehicle. Ideally, this platform would adapt to multiple use cases ranging from remote action to fully autonomous driving, depending on the case. This requires robust privacy controls and resilient system communication, which in turn translates into optimal overall performance.

As we wait for 2030 to come around, bringing more refined mobility technology, it looks like remote driving will be paving the way.

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