How 5G Remote Driving Could Pave the Way to Full Autonomy

While reading our excerpt from the book AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan, I received a press release for the WayRay Holograktor concept car that seemed to shorten the time horizon the story predicts. “The Holy Driver” in the excerpt was a Sri Lankan gamer who discovers the cars he drives in a simulator to earn money are real vehicles located elsewhere in the world. So this line in WayRay’s release widened my eyes: “The three-seat Holograktor has been conceived as a ride-hailing car [that] can be driven by remote control.” Is the 5G remote-driven car “a thing,” I wondered?

I quickly scheduled a call with Michal Macuda, WayRay’s product platform manager, who explained the concept car’s main purpose is to demonstrate a new holographic laser-projection technology applied to the windshield and side glass. It allows the car’s greenhouse to serve as a virtual/augmented reality headset through which passengers can observe a merging of the metaverse and reality (see the image above). But they can’t be driving when they do so, and WayRay reckons we’ll have remote-driven cars way sooner than the decade or more it’ll take to get full Level 5 autonomy on private vehicles.

A Las Vegas ride-sharing car-rental startup called Halo, founded by executives from Uber, Cruise Robotics, Proterra, Amazon, and others, is working with T-Mobile. It plans to launch a service soon where vehicles are delivered to and retrieved from the renter via remote control (they’re driven manually when people are on board). Sweden’s Scania is working on remotely driven buses. Might you soon be able to hire a remote driver to chauffeur you home after you’ve had one too many?.

The concept makes sense. Now that thermal cameras, Luneburg lens radar, and modern lidar are making crystal-clear long-range sensing affordable, the biggest stumbling block to full autonomy is teaching computers how to cope with “edge cases.” Simply hiring and training humans to manage driving tasks remotely could bring the benefits of autonomy to populations like the blind, disabled, and minors (or relocating empty vehicles) soon through the geographic outsourcing of drivers.

Several questions immediately arise. How should info be presented to the driver? Probably not as raw lidar point clouds and radar images. How much data must be transmitted, and can the infrastructure handle it? I posed these questions to a number of relevant experts.

“Eyes see the world differently than cameras,” Tom Jellicoe of The Technology Partnership in the U.K. warns. “Event-based vision means we only get a signal from a part of a scene where something’s changing, whereas cameras capture everything. Humans constantly reiterate conclusions. Sensor fusion on board cars tries to find the most interesting features in each scene. The challenge will be to try to present data to humans in a way that seems natural, without overwhelming them.”

Nakul Duggal, senior vice president and general manager for automotive at Qualcomm Technologies, worries about the tremendous amount of data that must be transmitted and the challenges of doing so in dense urban centers. But Scania has demonstrated reliable uplink throughput of 10-20 megabits/second—sufficient to sustain a rich 4K video feed, especially with signal processing. WayRay’s Macuda says 20-700 ms “latency,” or round-trip time (RTT) for the signal, is tolerable. Scania’s testing has demonstrated network RTT of less than 50 ms for the most part, with video processing and onboard mechanical actuation contributing the majority of the 185-ms worst-case total response time it has recorded.

Supplier Bosch cited security as a primary reason it is concentrating on supplying a robust sensing suite with software to keep all decision-making on board. I’m willing to bet the telecoms industry can figure out how to secure the data transmission pipeline, but then the remote drivers must be vetted and schooled in our traffic laws and habits, and the remote locations themselves must be secured from attack or infiltration. Bottom line: I’m eager to let a local remote driver pilot my car home after a party or deliver me a rental car, but I’m uneasy off-shoring my chauffeur.

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