The ideal self-driving car drives itself, in any situation. But achieving this in practice is difficult, whatever Elon Musk says in his recent externations.
It is so difficult, in reality, that most companies that work on autonomous driving have provisions for human backup to drive the car remotely and get them out of difficult or confusing situations. Just like Voyage.
Companies are usually reserved about exactly how these systems work. They fear that giving details will put their autonomous driving technology in a bad light.
This is why it was nice to see the startup Voyage unveil its remote driving console as if it were announcing an important new product. In a sense, it is.
And yes, because Voyage has not only created software that allows a remote operator to give instructions to a car autonomous driving, but built a "remote assistance pod" where a remote driver sits to control the vehicle from afar.
Meet the Telessist pod
"It's basically a car without wheels," says the CEO of Voyage Oliver Cameron. "But it has a real steering wheel, real pedals, real automotive grade connectors and real responsiveness."
Voyage engineers built a real car, albeit without wheels, because they wanted to reflect the driving experience of a real car as much as possible.
"If you try to do it with a different weight steering wheel, you don't get the strength feedback you get with a real car," continues Cameron. “It is impossible to drive reliably in that way. It's dangerous."
Voyage's remote drivers sit in a metal cage about the size of a golf cart. There is a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal exactly where you would find them in a real car. A series of monitors show the surroundings of the car.
How does remote driving work?
An encrypted wireless data connection keeps the components of the Telessist pod synchronized with their counterparts in the real car. Voyage says the network latency is less than 100 milliseconds, short enough to prevent the driver from significantly delaying.
Three levels of redundancy
The obvious question that arises on a system like this is: "What happens to driving the car remotely when something goes wrong?" Voyage claims to have taken multiple precautions.
First of all, the company combines five separate 5G wireless connections, each with its own SIM card on another wireless operator, to achieve maximum redundancy and therefore reliability. If one of the five networks fails, the software automatically switches to the other four.
Second "guarantee": a system called Remote Drive Assist is ready to take control if the car loses its wireless connection. "If Remote Drive Assist detects the possibility of a dangerous situation during remote vehicle operation, the vehicle will stop immediately," Voyage writes.
The third level redundancy is provided by Shield, Voyage's high-tech emergency braking system. It is a small autonomous system mounted on the front of Voyage cars. A lidar unit continuously scans the road for potential obstacles. If it detects an impending collision, it has the power to activate the brakes and stop the vehicle. This means that even if the human driver, or Voyage's main autonomous driving system, makes a mistake, the car is unlikely to come across anything.
No car on the market today has a powerful lidar unit like the one Voyage is using.
Voyage, take your life slowly
One of Voyage's main advantages is that its cars have a top speed of 40 km per hour. Voyage's initial commercial offering will be a taxi service to the Villages, a huge community of retirees in Florida where 40 km per hour is just the maximum speed allowed.
It is a profitable and anything but small niche. The starting point, as mentioned, is The Villages, a community of over 100.000 elderly people, many of whom are well-off. The community has thousands of homes, shops, restaurants and other services scattered throughout a significant area. Many residents have cars, but some have become too old to drive alone. This single customer can earn Voyage $ 100 million a year.
How does Voyage's competition move?
Companies with more difficult initial markets (Waymo from Google and Cruise from General Motors) struggle to achieve completely driverless operation. Voyage's challenge is that starting with a relatively simple technical challenge will allow the company to gain traction. Driving the car remotely will earn revenue and acquire knowledge that will help Voyage overcome the most difficult environments.