Tourists and locals trekking near the Las Vegas strip this year will now see a new a fleet of SUVs mysteriously zooming across town without anyone in the driver’s seat. These vehicles, operated by German startup Vay, may not have humans grasping at the steering wheel but they also aren’t exactly the fully autonomous driverless cars of science fiction fame. In reality, the Vay cars are part of the emerging “teledriving” model where human operators use video-game-like remote controls to steer cars towards customers from the company’s headquarters.
What is teledriving?
Teledriving companies like Vay claim they can alter metropolitan mobility and one day reduce the number of cars filling city streets through the use of remote control drivers. Customers interested in using one of the vehicles request a ride on a mobile app. A team of human operators at Vay then use a combination of cameras, sensors and augmented reality tech to remotely drive a vehicle to the customer. Once the car arrives, the customers take over control and drive it to their destination with a fee based on time spent driving. When the trip is complete, the remote driver regains control over the vehicle and drives it to a new customer. PopSci has reached out to Vay to clarify what happens to the vehicles between trips and overnight.
Vay launched the first commercial teledriving product in the US last week in parts of Las Vegas, previously allowing for early access test drives. The company is operating its remote controlled car service near the city’s Arts District and the University of Nevada, which is nestled around a mile away from the famous strip. Users who take over the cars from the remote drivers are charged $.30 per minute while driving and $.03 per minute if they decide to momentarily park the car to go shopping or pick up groceries.
The remote drivers at Vay operate the vehicles using a simulated driving station that looks like an advanced version of an arcade car game equipped with a physical steering wheel and pedals. A large screen reproduces the vehicle’s real-world surroundings using a combination of sensors and cameras. This is all made possible by modern 5G wireless networks, which let the vehicles quickly transmit real-time data to the remote operators.
Vay isn’t the only startup trying to carve out a lane in the teledriving space but it’s the first to operate commercially in the US. Elmo, another major player in the space, recently received approval to operate in Lithuania. Together, these companies are hoping to attract commuters who want to save time parking vehicles and avoid the maintenance costs and responsibilities of owning a vehicle. Supporters of these shared, all-electric ride services say they could also help cut back on commuters’ carbon footprints by reducing the overall number of vehicles on the road. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated around 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions were attributed to transportation, which includes light and medium duty cars and trucks.
The jury is still out whether or no teledriving and more autonomous robots is services actually live up those climate-friendly claims. More traditional ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft made similar promises, but data reportedly shows an increase in traffic congestion in most of the cities where they were introduced. Encouraging frequent, individual rides from teledriving services could also disincentive commuters to carpool, which studies show can reduce carbon emissions.
Teledriving offers more peace of mind, but may have limited appeal
Teledriving is the lesser-known, less flashy step-sibling to the fully autonomous taxis services offered by companies like Cruise and Waymo. Fully autonomous taxi services have inched closer to reality but collectively faced a setback last year after a series of high-profile missteps. Cruise, in particular, was forced to indefinitely cease its driverless taxi operations in California after one of its autonomous vehicles ran over a pedestrian. Another Cruise vehicle drove into wet cement.
Those incidents likely won’t help autonomous vehicle companies gain favor among drivers, who still largely aren’t comfortably sharing the road with entirely driverless cars. A majority (63%) of US adults surveyed by Pew Research in 2022 said they would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle. Only 21% of respondents in that same poll said they would feel very comfortable sharing the road with an autonomous vehicle.
Teledriving, by contrast, could provide riders some more piece of mind knowing a human is still guiding the seemingly driverless vehicle. Vay, in particular, calls its remote controlled experience an “alternative approach to autonomous driving.”
“With teledriving, a human is in charge,” Vay CEO and cofounder Thomas von der Ohe said during a recent interview with CNBC. “This allows us to handle complex maneuvers such as unprotected left turns, emergency situations, and road works based on human perception and decision-making ability.”
At the same time, teledriving firms’ decision not to fully embrace autonomous driving could limit its overall appeal. Commuters who summon these vehicles will still ultimately have to engage in the active and time-consuming act of driving. Commuters, in other words, won’t be able to take remote zoom video meetings or catch up on Netflix episodes in these cars. Teledriving also disincentivizes the ownership of personal vehicles, which many commuters value for its reliability and as a potential source of income down the line if they decide to sell.
For now, at least, teledriving looks like an intriguing, if ultimately niche solution to a larger issue of accessible transportation in the US. Critics may argue this automobile focused approach could also distract from larger-scale efforts to invest in mass transit or cut back on overall time spent driving. Heightened safety concerns stemming from recent autonomous vehicle errors could offer teledriving companies slightly more runway, but it’s still unclear whether they will catch on in sprawling US cities anytime soon.