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Designated Driver Deploys its ‘Remote Driver' Technology for Autonomous Shuttles at Texas A&M

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【Summary】Remote teleoperations startup Designated Driver announced today that its technology is being deployed to support a fleet of autonomous shuttles that transport people near the campus of Texas A&M University in Bryan, Texas. It's the first commercial deployment for Designated Driver's remote teleoperation system.

Eric Walz    Aug 27, 2019 3:30 PM PT
Designated Driver Deploys its ‘Remote Driver' Technology for Autonomous Shuttles at Texas A&M

While fully self-driving vehicles are still years away from commercial deployment, driverless technology is already robust enough for some applications, as long as there is if a human is standing by to offer assistance in any unexpected situations. One company is making that possible.

Remote teleoperations startup Designated Driver announced today that its technology is being deployed to support a fleet of autonomous shuttles that transport people near the campus of Texas A&M University in Bryan, Texas.

This is the first commercial deployment on public roads for Designated Driver's teleoperation system.

Designated Driver offers roadside assistance for self-driving vehicles, using a remote teleoperator that is able to "drive" an autonomous vehicle from miles away. 

The company's teleoperations workstation resembles a video game setup, complete with a steering wheel, pedals as well as six monitors that display live feeds around an autonomous vehicle, including a map.

By interfacing directly with an autonomous vehicle over a cellular network, the technology allows a Designated Driver remote operator to take control over one of the autonomous shuttles by sending commands directly to the vehicle's drive-by-wire steering, braking and acceleration in real-time when needed. 

The technology essentially puts a "remote human driver behind the wheel of a self-driving vehicle" on-demand.

Since it works over cellular networks, Designated Driver developed a separate cellular module to ensure that communication with a vehicle is never lost.

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A Designated Driver remote-operated test vehicle outside the San Jose Convention Center in May, 2019.

Not only is the remote system good for the piece of mind of passengers, if a self-driving vehicle encounters anything situation that its software is not programmed to handle, one of Designated Driver's remote operators can be instantly summoned to take control, even from hundreds of miles away.

For the first phase, Designated Driver's remote assistance will be integrated into the Texas A&M shuttle autonomy system to authorize the shuttle to proceed at busy four-way intersections and stops, which is a difficult challenge for developers of self-driving vehicles.

"The Designated Driver system provides a powerful 'safety net' for our driverless shuttles," said Dr. Srikanth Saripalli, an associate professor in the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, who has overseen the shuttle project since its inception in October 2018. 

"Among our most important observations over the past six months, we found that four-way intersections and stops were the most common scenarios where our safety driver had to intervene. Designated Driver's technology provides both remote driving and remote assistance—ideal for easily and safely guiding a vehicle through an intersection."

Over time, more Designated Driver functionality will be added, including the ability to provide the shuttle's autonomy system with alternative routes if needed, enabling it to safely navigate around unanticipated obstacles.

Led by an executive team with decades of experience in automotive technologies, Designated Driver says it's committed to producing products adhering to the highest levels of functional safety. 

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Designated Driver's remote teleoperations setup allow a human to operate one of its vehicles from anywhere.

FutureCar experienced the company's technology in-person in San Jose, California back in May. During the demonstration, a remote operator at the company's Oregon headquarters hundreds of miles away drove a test vehicle near the busy San Jose Convention Center. The experience as a passenger felt ordinary, which is the way the technology is supposed to work.

The remote operator's view is the even better than what a human driver would see if he or she was the wheel. The multiple cameras provide a 360 degree view of the vehicle's surrounding to the remote operator for an extra layer of safety. The remote operator can also operate the turn signals when needed.

The technology can also provide some reassurance to passengers that are not yet comfortable getting in a self-driving robotaxi with no human driver present. For many people, having a human driver on standby is more comforting than relying on autonomous driving software.

The connection to the vehicle includes an audio link, so the remote driver can speak with passengers keeping them informed to what is happening.

"We are enabling Texas A&M to get the safety driver out of the driver's seat by deploying a reliable teleoperation solution," said Manuela Papadopol, CEO, Designated Driver. "This model lowers the barrier to entry for any company to provide safe autonomous solutions. We're excited to help Texas A&M continue to expand its autonomous shuttle program in other vehicles and cities and look forward to using this opportunity to further study the behavior of teleoperators and provide the best user experience for all riders."

Teleoperations for Car-Sharing Services

Designated Driver's remote assistance can work on regular cars too, it does not need to be built specifically for self-driving. The company's camera-based remote technology can be used in many vehicles that use a drive-by-wire system for the steering, brakes, shifting and accelerator.

Designated Driver's technology can support car-sharing networks, for example. The company's teleoperator solution can be used by to bring vehicles to the location of the next customer using a remote operator.

"A driver may rent a car for an hour and park it in another part of the city. The challenges are that the place in the city that those cars are parked are not necessarily the best places to pick up the next customer." said Designated Driver CTO Walter Sullivan to FutureCar in May.

He said that teleoperators can help maximize the use of each vehicle that's part of a ride-sharing network. 

"A remote operator can repositionion those vehicles for better utilization."

Designated Driver technology will eventually replace the safety driver altogether in Texas, the shuttles will continue to include a safety navigator who will provide support and educate the passengers on the technology. 

The shuttles will be controlled and monitored by a dedicated teleoperations center at Texas A&M.

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