Teleoperated Driving – The Call From Afar

Remote-controlled toy cars are the biggest hit with many kids. So what about remote-controlled real cars? Teleoperated driving is a young technology, and applications in transportation companies and logistics are still limited. Despite this, does teleoperated driving have what it takes to become an independent form of mobility?

The Freight technology company Einride plans to soon send out a fleet of automated cabless trucks (pods) to transport goods. Photo: Einride

At the beginning of September 2021, racecar driver Tim Heinemann performed an incredible feat with a driverless 1,200-hp electric car at the Red Bull Ring in Styria. The 22-year-old, who competes for Team HP Racing International in the DTM Trophy, steered the vehicle around the 4,326-meter circuit in a fabulous run – from behind the wheel of a state-of-the-art driving simulator.

Using a driving simulator, Tim Heinemann steered a driverless 1,200-hp electric car around the 4,326-meter circuit on the Red Bull Ring. Photo: Schaeffler

It was set up at the drive developer AVM in Graz, over 80 kilometers away. Even though most racing fans might shudder at the thought of driverless cars racing around the track in a DTM series, the event showed that remote-controlled or teleoperated driving can display impressive performance capabilities. On the other hand, the question arises as to why the driver in the vehicle should be replaced by an external driver at all. As a reference for driverless operation beyond level 4 of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), a teleoperated car would be a bluff package, anyway – after all, the driver is still in control, even if the actual commands come from outside the vehicle. It is quite possible, however, that the technology has prospects as a stepping stone on the way to actual driverless driving.

Can remote-controlled driving offer added economic value?

The hardware for remote steering in the vehicle essentially consists of high-resolution cameras, optical sensors, and an on-board unit that provides access to the driving functions via mobile communications. The external control, in turn, takes place in a control station or control center. There, the teleoperator sits in front of large monitors that provide an overview of the vehicle’s surroundings. The vehicle is controlled with the aid of a joystick or by means of a steering wheel and pedals. To ensure that the interaction between teleoperator and car works perfectly, very good network coverage and plenty of bandwidth for transmitting video streams are required. When the 5G mobile communications standard becomes widely available, it is likely to promote the development of teleoperated driving.

The Berlin startup Vay combines cab service and car sharing with teleoperated electric cars. Photo: Vay

However, the example of the Berlin startup Vay, whose model combines cab service and car sharing, shows that this type of mobility also works without a super fast network. For the past two years, the company has been busy amassing test kilometers in Berlin and Hamburg with a small fleet of teleoperated electric cars with safety drivers on board. Among other things, the arrangement calls for the vehicles to have access to multiple 4G mobile networks and to travel only in areas where seamless coverage is guaranteed. Vay plans to tackle commercial deployment in the Hanseatic city before the end of the year. The remote-controlled electric cars will primarily be on the road in outlying districts that are not yet adequately served by public transport. The customer orders the car via app, which a teledriver steers to the desired pickup. Once at the destination, the driver gets out and returns the car directly to the operator. There is no need to search for a parking space and the vehicle is available for its next assignment.

For DB Schenker, teleoperation is a first step toward greater automation of its depots. Photo: DB Schenker

There is also added value for teleoperation in logistics. Driverless vehicles are already being used in isolated cases in closed operating facilities. In a complex environment, however, they are often unable to cope with independent driving and handling tasks. That’s why logistics service provider DB Schenker, together with Munich-based startup Fernride, conducted a case study to investigate the use of a teleoperated transfer vehicle in yard logistics. The teleoperator and vehicle apparently performed very well when working with swap bodies – DB Schenker now says that teleoperation is a first step toward greater automation of its depots.

In North America, Einride is looking for professional teleriders for the pods

Freight technology company Einride has had their eye on teleoperation for some time. The Swedes plan to soon send out a fleet of their automated cabless trucks (pods) to transport goods in Austin, North America. The company’s first official teledriver is ex-trucker Tiffany Heathcott, who went through a specially designed training program last year. However, Einride isn’t aiming for steering by remote control on a permanent level – after all, the pods are supposed to find their own way. The teledriver’s core task is to monitor and assist the trucks in carrying out their transports. In a sense, the teledriver functions as a Plan B – and would have enough time to take several driverless trucks under her wing at the same time during a shift. In Germany, too, driverless vehicles are ready to roll at transport companies and in local public transport. However, Tiffany Heathcott would not get the job if she applied to become a teledriver. Neither the law on autonomous driving of July 12, 2021, nor the “Ordinance on the Regular Operation of Motor Vehicles with Highly and Fully Automated Driving Functions on Public Roads” passed by the German government on February 23, 2022, allow for direct teleoperated remote control.

German legislation still rules out direct remote control

Instead, the ordinance, which is still awaiting approval from the Bundesrat, describes the following scenario: In the event of an operational malfunction or unusual occurrence – such as an obstacle on the road – the vehicle puts itself in the minimum-risk state. It stops at a suitable point and requests a decision from the technical supervisor on how to proceed. If manual operation is required, two alternatives are available: A person driving the vehicle – who does not have to be identical with the technical supervisor – can take over via a remote control located in the near field. However, this presupposes that the vehicle is not traveling faster than walking speed and that the operator is no more than six meters away. For higher speeds to be an option, the vehicle’s interior must be equipped for manual driving – for the driver to get behind the wheel in the conventional way.

Meanwhile, automotive supplier Bosch is pursuing an approach in which technical supervision could also get a vehicle out of trouble with the help of a teleoperated maneuver. In the EU-funded 5GCroCo (5G Cross Border Control) project, which is scheduled to finish after three years at the end of June 2022, Bosch investigated the model of indirect control. Here, the technical supervisor determines an alternative driving path based on video images and transmits a series of so-called trajectories that lead around the obstacle. Once the technical supervisor has given clearance, the driverless vehicle follows the detour on its own and subsequently returns to the regular route.

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