The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines 6 levels of driving automation that has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Here are the 6 levels, as explained through an infographic by Intel.
What these levels fail to include is an entirely new possibility enabled by a cab company called Halo, in Las Vegas.
Halo is a very different driverless cab company. It employs human drivers who operate the car remotely! So, when you ask for a cab, the remote drivers drive a cab from the garage to where you are and hand over control of the cab to you. You drive the car/cab to your destination and just leave it there. The remote drivers then drive it to the next cab seeker’s location!
Halo’s recent press release adds that its cars will be equipped with an algorithm that “learns in the background while humans control the vehicle, building a unique feedback loop to achieve Level 3 capabilities over time”. Yes, the level 3 mentioned here is ‘conditional automation’ that you see above, and this indicates that Halo has set its sight on increasing the level of automation in its fleet, but is starting with this unique system of remote drivers!
Assuming fully automated (not autonomous, meaning thinking on their own) vehicles are still years away, and perhaps may not gain widespread traction due to differences in internet connectivity from region to region, I find that this remote-driver option is a really interesting idea for multiple reasons.
1. The most important reason: trust! Getting people to trust an automated car is going to take a LOT of time. People trust each other, even if they don’t know them all that well, like we implicitly trust a cab driver even if we know only their name (that too, only on tech-enabled cab companies; a normal auto driver’s name is outside our purview when we hire it off the road!). To extend that trust to a machine is going to be quite a task.
But a remote driver seems like an elegant bridge between a totally automated vehicle and a driver physically driving that vehicle. You could probably see and talk to the remote driver just to ensure that there IS a person driving the vehicle you are hiring.
2. It does not remove human drivers from the equation. It only reorients the training needed for a human driver. So, humans don’t lose their job – they get upskilled/reskilled by the cab company to become remote drivers.
3. Remote drivers do not need to go with the vehicle everywhere. They could all be housed in one location owned by the cab company! This is almost like a back-office system in software services! Ultimately, if the internet connectivity (5G and more) gains traction, remote drivers could work from home much like a knowledge worker!
4. Remote drivers could not only drive cars but also smaller vehicles that could enable home delivery of items. Now, drones are being considered for home delivery, but assuming they are small and carry limited items, imagine a small, good carrier that is half the size of an autorickshaw and can be remotely driven! It could have multiple compartments inside where the items ordered by people can be kept. Once it reaches a buyer’s location, the buyer could be alerted and they come down to unlock their compartment through an OTP, pick their items. The delivery vehicle could then be driven remotely to other buyers.
5. The Halo cabs announcement was done in collaboration with T-mobile, the 5G provider enabling the remote driving capabilities. It’s one thing to drop a completely automated vehicle on the road, and entirely another to enable a remotely driven vehicle. The latter is akin to any other activity that someone does remotely using a good network as the conduit.
For instance, the UK-based network EE created a campaign recently that featured Lucifer actor, Tom Ellis. In the campaign, executed with advertising partner Saatchi & Saatchi, production company Smuggler, and global production partner The Mill, Tom gets a shave from a barber based in Clapton, London, who is 250 miles away – Tom himself is 729 meters above sea level on Snowdon, Wales!
A special robot barber arm, developed exclusively for this campaign by The Mill, features a fully mechanical hand that grasps the razor blade and carefully mirrors the gestures of the barber who, through the use of multiple tracking markers and motion-capture technology.
In the case of a remotely driven cab, should the need arise, for whatever reason/emergency, the passenger could take control of the vehicle. But in both examples, a predictably good quality network is an absolute prerequisite for the remote work to be performed. And, in both examples, the fact that there is a human at the other end increases trust in the process considerably more than expecting a machine to perform the task. Of course, our trust in machines to perform these tasks could increase too, with time and more exposure.
I do understand that both automated vehicles and remotely driven vehicles are still a few years away. But I feel that the latter may be a better bridge towards the former and could get better adoption in less developed countries that otherwise have good internet connectivity that powers many other activities already. From an employment generation perspective, it could be an incredibly valuable bridge that redirects the existing workforce that could be affected by full automation towards a reskilled employment potential.