By on September 20, 2021

Despite the concept of autonomous cars suggesting a seamless, hands-free driving experience as far back as the late 1950s, only the peripheral technologies have made their way into the real world. Our ancestors would have marveled at the video displays, powertrains, and navigation systems available today. But the 21st century concept of “mobility” has also turned out to be a bit of a scam.

Formerly a catch-all term for autonomous transportation, the phrase has been redefined by the industry to pertain to subscription fees, over-the-air updates, digitally affixing your credit card information to the vehicle, and just about any present-day feature it’s interested in selling. Meanwhile, the self-driving programs that kicked off the would-be renaissance have been stagnating as companies cannot quite figure out how to teach a car to successfully assume all of the duties of a human driver. However there’s a German startup that’s attempting to circumvent those obstacles by employing digital chauffeurs working from far-off locations.

At a glance, Vay appears to have all the hallmarks of a self-driving vehicle firm. It uses a minimalist logo, language that borrows obnoxiously from marketing agencies, and is heavily dependent upon same hardware all autonomous vehicles currently need to function. But how it’s utilizing those on-board systems is very different. Rather than hiring an army of engineers and programmers in an attempt to teach an automobile how to drive like a person, Vay wants to use existing sensing and camera equipment to have professional drivers operate vehicles remotely.

Connected cars would be hailed using a smartphone application (much like Uber or Lyft) and the driver will be informed of the pickup location. From there, they will pilot the vehicle to its destination remotely until the customer can hop in and assume driving responsibilities. The virtual driving rig will then load up another vehicle across town and the process starts all over again. Vay is basically merging short-term car rentals, ride hailing, autonomous driving, and drone strikes into one tidy little package.

“But that’s not really autonomous driving,” I hear you explaining to the screen.

While I am included to agree, SAE International updated its language to include “remote assistance and remote driving” in May — not that it provides any real clarity as to the efficacy of such systems or where they slot into the existing levels of autonomy.

It still pertains to Vay, however, and the whole point of the company is to get away from being totally dependent upon machine learning and prolonged test cycles that don’t appear to be yielding much useful fruit. It also needs to have some autonomous capabilities to safely stop the vehicles in case the connection between car and remote driver is interrupted. Units likewise use a lot of the same equipment you’d find in other AVs so that information can be reliably streamed back to virtual cockpits.

That last bit is incredibly important as it’s basically the lynch pin for the entire business proposal. Ultimately, Vay said it would like to provide full-time virtual chauffeurs that could take over whenever a driver feels like they’ve spent enough time behind the wheel. We’ve heard of other companies dabbling in this space (including a few major manufacturers) but Vay is singularly devoted to it and popped up on our radar after Bloomberg covered them last week.

Vay wants to leapfrog the competition by offering a cheaper and more-realistic alternative to true self-driving vehicles. It’s also reportedly close to achieving that goal.

“We’re launching next year — not in five years — with services that have huge benefits over what is out there,” Chief Executive Officer Thomas von der Ohe, told the outlet in an interview.

Herr von der Ohe previously worked developing Amazon’s Alexa and was employed by self-driving firm Zoox. While a small outfit, with roughly 70 employees, Bloomberg said that other Vay staffers possessed similarly relevant credentials:

Vay’s von der Ohe and his co-founders — engineer and electric-car developer Fabrizio Scelsi and Bogdan Djukic, who built software for Skype — have poached people from Google, Volkswagen AG’s Audi and Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to develop hardware and software for a teledriving-first approach.

The company’s trained teledrivers operate from stations equipped with a steering wheel, pedals and several large monitors for 360-degree vision without blind spots. The system has built-in redundancies, prevents speeding and overlays safety information onto the screens to make rides safer.

Although the above was not as problematic as solving prior latency issues that would have otherwise nullified its ability to use off-site drivers in the fist place. But the company says it’s been happy with the progress made (at least in metropolitan areas) and has reached a point where it can court local regulators and hunt for investors that will allow it to expand the business.

Right now, its vehicles are being tested in Berlin on a limited basis. But the future involves either utilizing its systems for a more comprehensive ride-hailing/sharing experience or selling the technology to other companies. Vay claims it can undercut the cost of traditional AVs by a huge margin and that its system can be installed to almost any modern car for a few thousand euros.

[Images: Vay]

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17 Comments on “German Startup Driving Around Autonomous Vehicle Hurdles...”


  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    I can hear the testimony now… “Your honor, I completely forgot that I was no longer playing GTA5.”

  • avatar
    Rboz

    Oy!

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Remote taxi drivers. I wonder what the liability risks will be for this sort of thing?

    Large mines have autonomous equipment with remote operators monitoring everything and IIRC can take over as needed. That sort of operation is easily adapted to driverless systems since access is limited to mine staff only. Out in the real world, “biologicals” are rather unpredictable.

  • avatar
    stuki

    You know the ECB succeeded in destroying Germany with “free” money, when this stuff gets funded. What practical purpose does this serve, over Uber? For short trips, the cost is the same or more. For longer ones, take an Uber to your own car and drive from there…. Remote controlled slippers greeting you by your bed in the morning, makes more sense than this.

    If the sensor feeds, and remote driver responses, are all recorded, I suppose it could allow for generating some cashflow by using the interactions as real world training input for machines learning how a real driver would would react.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      Vay claims they’ll be able to charge less than something like Uber. But I’m not really sure how that would be possible. This is also the kind of thing that looks interesting today and might very well turn out to be nothing once they’ve gotten a few more high-value investors to fork over some cash.

      I don’t see much utility for this beyond having the ability to rent out virtual drivers for long-distance journeys and the occasional vehicle drop off. Though it could mean something for the shipping industry. You could theoretically have vehicles driving 24/7 and just swap between drivers when one hits their daily quota. Heck, I would consider moonlighting as a VR trucker.

  • avatar
    mcs

    What’s the latency on this? So, the reason to have remote drivers is to handle situations where autonomous systems fail but depends on the autonomous system because of latency or remote system failure.

    If there is a need to suddenly apply the brake, the video image/stream has to 1st go to Lahore or Bangalore (you know that’s what will happen), the driver has to realize there is an issue along with normal human reaction time, then has to depress the brake pedal, then that signal has to travel back to the vehicle in the US, then activate the brakes… Yeah, right.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      That was my first thought too – “outsourcing scheme.”

      Well, think of all those folks in India who were put of out work when the IRS Tax Scam Call Center in Lahore got shut down. I mean, you have people who were making good money spouting lines like “Sheriff is right outside your door now waiting to arrest you – send me $1,000 in Apple Music gift cards and I’ll call him off”. Alas, no more. Plus, the Ecosport factory is closing down.

      Mouths need to be fed in the developing world too, you know!

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        “send me $1,000 in Apple Music gift cards and I’ll call him off”.”

        How about “I’ve locked the doors and as you can see we’re now at the end of a boat ramp…” instead?

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          ^ This!

          I never thought about the latency issues! Heck, even a UAV isn’t as dangerous as this, since there’s a heckuva lot more sky than roads! (Although if you were carrying passengers in a remotely-flown UAV, I’d hope that they would be IFR, always under the watchful eyes of ATC!)

          In an emergency, reaction is needed immediately! That ain’t going to happen with someone from some Indian-subcontinent $hithole doing the driving!

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    What’s wrong with just, um, driving your car?

    All this tech is still just answering questions no-one asked. Apple and Alphabet would love to have us all generating and consuming content while we’re whisked about in pods to our coffee shop/laptop jobs but it ain’t driving.

    I rarely even have the tunes on when I’m driving – mostly because all of my cars are old and I need to listen for potential issues. That’s how I roll and I like it.

  • avatar

    Very convenient indeed. If you need to kill someone you can do it now remotely. Car bombs will be thing of the past in Russia.

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