Teleoperation and the Necessary Evolution of Vehicle Safety Technology

As vehicles evolve, it is imperative that safety technology evolves. For example, as human-driven vehicles — what I will call auto 1.0 — began to operate at faster and faster speeds, the driving public was introduced to new safety technologies, such as seatbelts and airbags. Now, with auto 2.0 — the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs) — it is again necessary that safety technology evolves to keep pace with this vehicle innovation.

There are many differences between human-driven vehicles and AVs, but two of the most significant differences are: (1) an AV may have no human driver inside the vehicle, and (2) AVs may not have the standard controls that human-driven vehicles have today, such as a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. For as long as cars have existed, they have been manufactured to be driven by humans in the driver seat; but now, AVs will be manufactured to be machine-driven. With these fundamental changes come the need for new safety technologies to adequately protect passengers in AVs.

It is for this reason — the evolution from human-driven vehicle to machine-driven vehicle — that Phantom Auto exists. We are not an AV company; we provide our AV company customers with teleoperation technology which enables the optimally safe testing and deployment of their AVs.

We are often asked: why does the advent of self-driving vehicles mean we need new safety technology? There are a myriad of reasons, but here is one poignant example. Say you are a passenger in the backseat of a robo-taxi that doesn’t have a human driver, steering wheel, or gas and brake pedals. The vehicle is driving down the middle of a five-lane road when suddenly, the autonomous technology stops functioning correctly, and the car thus comes to a stop in one of the middle lanes in the road. Other vehicles are zipping by you in all directions, and your first reaction is to jump in the driver seat and drive the car yourself. So, you move from the backseat to the driver’s seat, but then quickly come to the realization that the robo-taxi does not have a steering wheel or pedals. Thus, there is literally nothing that you, as a passenger inside this vehicle, can do to drive this car. You are trapped in your vehicle, in the middle of the road, with no way to drive to safety.

The above scenario is one of many which illustrates broadly why safety technology must keep pace with AV technology. More specifically, it illustrates why teleoperation, and more precisely the form of teleoperation known as telepresence — where a human can drive a vehicle remotely — is an essential safety layer for the rollout of AVs. If the AV in the above scenario was equipped with telepresence technology, a human remote operator could have safely driven the car outside the flow of traffic and thus easily out of harm’s way. Standard safety technology on human-driven vehicles today couldn’t have helped in this scenario, while telepresence safety technology would be essential for a safe outcome.

Forward-thinking regulators such as the California DMV have already mandated the use of remote operation technology for driverless AV testing. Additionally, the California DMV’s AV regulations mandate that AV manufacturers must provide the DMV:

“A description of how [an AV] will safely come to a complete stop when there is an autonomous technology failure that would endanger the safety of the vehicle’s occupants or other road users, including but not limited to the following:

(A) To the extent practicable, moving the vehicle a safe distance from the travel lanes.

(B) Activation of systems that will allow the vehicle to continue operation until the vehicle has reached a location where it can come to a complete stop.”

Telepresence technology can safely and efficiently accomplish both necessary actions above in bold. And importantly, Phantom Auto’s telepresence safety technology is able to do so without having to rely on the AV being able to drive autonomously. So, if there is a problem with an AV’s lidar or radar that is preventing it from driving itself (as opposed to an AV just being temporarily confused by its surroundings), our telepresence technology can help.

Phantom Auto exists because AVs exist. And if we, as a society, want to have the safest possible rollout of this new vehicle type, we must embrace new safety technology. We applaud the regulators here in the US and around the world who have embraced teleoperation safety technology, but the practical reality is that mandate or not, this technology is essential for the safe testing and deployment of AVs.