Remote Controllers Key to Advancing Driverless Tech, Ford Says

The long path to autonomy is proving to be more difficult than many anticipated, so it’s no surprise that a potential stop-gap is being introduced: teleoperation.

From Phantom Auto to Google-backed Scotty Labs, the goal is to provide remote control access to driverless vehicles when they encounter tough or confusing situations.

Shyamala Prayaga, conversational interaction designer for Ford Motor Company, thinks this will be a significant part of the early days of driverless cars. She said autonomous vehicles simply won’t be smart enough to handle every situation at all times. “It will not have the human brain capability,” said Prayaga. “There has to be some intervention initially. The technology will evolve but there’s a transition phase.”

Prayaga compared the challenges AVs face to something as simple as a GPS that fails to properly identify a particular location. This is especially problematic when buildings or roads are constructed, expanded or abolished. If a GPS struggles to recognize any one of these changes, how will an autonomous car be able to proceed? “There might be failures,” said Prayaga. “The GPS says this road is open, it does all the time, but maybe it’s not there anymore! Then what happens? If my car is not smart enough to know there’s no turning, there could be accidents.”

Enjoying the ride

It has been said that autonomous vehicles will pave the way for mobile offices and entertainment experiences but consumers might be more interested in a little rest and relaxation. “When we spoke to users about what they would do when they are in autonomous car – completely driverless – many said they would sleep,” said Prayaga. “In those scenarios, of course, the car has to be more comfortable. If I want to sleep, it reclines to a certain degree. It could have a footrest, headrest and all those things, which make me more comfortable to sleep.”

Even the ambient lighting could change to make the experience more conducive to roadway napping but, whether occupants are snoozing or not, vehicle interiors are headed for big changes. “It’s definitely going to change, especially when we are talking about ride-share or shuttle services,” Prayaga added. “When we start thinking about how to give a personalized experience within that small space, we have to start thinking about how we position, how we seat, how we create. Then, of course, the screens – we are talking about heads up displays and things like that. It complete makes since in autonomous scenarios but when it comes to ride-share scenarios, does the same experience work?”

Prayaga pointed out that when a solo commuter is heading to work, he or she might be interested in a unique or personalized experience. When traveling with a group, however, personalization might not be as important. This will likely inspire, if not require, automakers to continue providing a wide variety of automobiles for some time.

Augmenting the experience

In addition to softer seats, new materials, improved lighting and other features that are likely to shape the future of driverless cars, there is also room for augmented reality to play a role. Prayaga is keen on the idea, so long as she can still see out the window.

“That’s an opportunity for sure but it depends on the trust and comfort the user has,” she said of the concept. “In the initial days I would be freaked out and want to look outside and make sure my vehicle is going the right way but, as we start evolving, windshields and windows could be replaced with screens. Maybe there’s a projection so you don’t need a screen at all, [similar to] how we project movies. It could be a similar kind of experience.”

Identifying riders

Identification is an important but less frequently discussed topic surrounding autonomous ride-shares. Not only will the car have to accurately identify the rider, but the rider will have to make sure he or she is entering the right automobile.

One solution could involve the use of a one-time pin that would be required before entering a vehicle. Prayaga said this option has already been successfully implemented by Ola Cabs, a traditional, human-driven ride-share service in India. “When I go, the first thing I have to do is give my pin and the driver will match it to his,” said Prayaga, adding that a similar system to could be added to AVs. “Or there has to be some barcode or something where I don’t have to manually enter, I can just scan it.”

Biometrics could provide an alternative that wouldn’t require the use of a pin, barcode or any other single-use solution. “No one can spam or hack my biometrics,” she said. “My biometrics are personal to me. Iris scans, fingerprints but people have reservations about facial recognition.” Regardless of the method that is ultimately chosen, Prayaga said the process shouldn’t be too daunting for consumers.

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