Tele-Operation is Not Autonomous Driving

Game controller for drive-by-wire autonomous development vehicle

Remote Tele-Operation has recently come to be viewed as a possible safety fall back option that is situated squarely within the context of a futuristic, fully autonomous, Level 5, scaled deployment scenario of millions of autonomous vehicles across all modern cities, and more.

The promise of this type of a futuristic, fully automated transport paradigm, is itself currently placed at more than at least two decades away, based on a consensus view within the autonomous vehicle industry, if not further out by many who forecast this timeline over the next two generations perhaps. Many supporting transport enablements will have to undergo rapid evolution in order to enable this fully automated transport future. Regulation, insurance, infrastructure, connectivity, and lifestyle changes being only a few such enablers that will have to evolve alongside the underlying automated driving technology.

More importantly however, autonomous driving technology will have to develop, deepen and be; refined, verifiably safe, commercially viable, and fully validated for delivering the requisite robust performance at Level 5 automation, requiring no human intervention at any stage. At present, several open technology challenges remain in reaching this goal. While it is reasonable to presume that these open challenges may apply in different degrees to various self driving car programs around the world depending on their level of technology maturity, there is consensus across the board that these technology challenges remain unsolved.

An example of one such open challenge is 3D/HD map dependency. These maps cost thousands of dollars per mile to create, petabytes of data collection, millions of hours of human effort in painstaking data annotation, and pre-driving of every road, worldwide. It is currently assumed by most practitioners and regulators that all current autonomous driving approaches will have to wait for detailed 3D/HD maps to be created around the world, in order to enable everywhere-all-the-time autonomous mobility. However, the technological and commercial challenges of a globally scaled 3D/HD mapping effort of; making, annotating, regularly updating, and wirelessly transmitting such maps to millions of autonomous vehicles, have not even been framed properly, let alone solved.

Another example of an open challenge for autonomous vehicles is robust scene perception. The current dominant approaches to solving the perception challenge involve increasing levels of AI to solve the ‘long-tail’ problem, speaking in statistical terms. At present, having robust perception, that does not falter in any edge case, can operate in any type of weather, and can be deployed in any geography across the world, could perhaps rightfully be claimed by very few self driving programs around the world.

Given the strategic opportunity and economic value to society of successfully deployed self-driving technology, estimated in multiple trillions, many hastily deployed first-mover initiatives in the self driving car industry are now showing signs of having ‘hit the technology wall’ syndrome, especially with respect to the many open challenges.

Amidst a global race to achieve early lead ahead of other nations, regulatory frameworks in many countries and regions are evolving rapidly to promote technology development and advanced trials. Regulation in this field has been a delicate balancing act between supporting rapid innovation while ensuring safety for the public, as a diverse set of early technologies for varying use cases are trialed on public roads.

In the backdrop of the current stage of autonomous driving technology and its open challenges, largely experimental regulatory codes and the strategic imperative of being first to the finish line, it is not surprising that more than a few ‘opportunistic technologies’ are being offered up as a panacea to circumvent the open challenges.

Foremost among the technologies used to veil the true state of autonomous driving, and work-around the open technology challenges, is Tele-Operation.

Tele-Operation of Highly Automated Road vehicles, whether remotely or through a joystick held by someone in the back seat of the vehicle, hardly moves the needle on usefulness to society or the evolution of technology. It only makes the dream of a fully automated future of transport increasingly more distant.

There is no technological imperative today, at this stage of technology development for regulators in any country to permit or encourage the remote controlling of cars or other vehicles on public roads. As of yet, no single self-driving program, anywhere in the world has even come close to developing a fully autonomous, Level 5 self-driving vehicle for all weather and all geographies. State-of-the-art trials of autonomous vehicles around the world are limited to geo-fenced zones, in fair weather conditions, on a subset of routes, with the frequent intervention from safety drivers at the wheel to account for incorrect autonomous driving behaviour. If such programs are permitted to rely on joystick control from the back seat, or remote control from a nearby facility, where they may have a testing base, we could all end up grappling with the unintended proliferation of technologies that are nothing more than radio controlled cars, appearing to be autonomous.

Mandating a safety driver in the driver seat who is able to directly assume human control of an autonomous vehicle in ‘open sight’, is the only established, safe, and transparent approach for both testing the technology and showcasing what has been developed. Permitting joystick control of supposedly ‘highly automated vehicles’ can easily encourage non-transparent practices and result in unverifiable technology claims and create a smoke and mirrors effect. Such practices damage the prospects of all self-driving car programs, including the most advanced ones. One would never be able to establish if various competing approaches are in reality operating an autonomous driving service or a largely radio controlled service under a veneer of autonomous driving.