If remote drivers can control a car 500 miles away, would it matter if an extra zero was added to the distance and the connection crossed an international border?
That's the scenario executives at Designated Driver, a teleoperation startup, examined during an experiment last Thursday. They wanted to see if they could remotely operate a vehicle located in West Sussex, England, from their headquarters in Portland, Ore.
"We were concerned about the latency," CEO Manuela Papadopol told Automotive News. "We didn't know. We're in the middle of nowhere, and we didn't know what to expect."
Any fears were allayed. Latency on the vital connection was less than 100 milliseconds, better than many of the company's intra-city tests in Portland. In what's believed to be the first test of its kind, Designated Driver remotely operated a vehicle across an international border from a distance of approximately 5,000 miles.
"This ultralong-distance teleoperation test is extremely significant because it shows how capable our technology is," said Lucas Buckland, vice president of engineering at the company, which launched in March. "While transatlantic teleoperation has been done with military drones and surgical robotics, this is a first for a passenger vehicle."
In some industry circles, teleoperation, also known as remote operation, is viewed as a key enabling technology for an eventual launch of autonomous vehicles. Should vehicles encounter situations in which they cannot determine the best course of action via their on-board computers, remote operations can either directly pilot a vehicle or provide instructions on how to navigate a tricky circumstance.
Previously, Designated Driver has showcased its technology in tests between Portland and Santa Clara, Calif., a distance of roughly 500 miles. Its transatlantic feat took place in preparation for demonstrations scheduled as part of this week's Goodwood Festival of Speed.
From a remote location on site, stunt driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. will pilot Designated Driver's Lincoln MKZ up Goodwood's signature hill climb. It's a spectacle intended to add to the atmosphere of the event, but it's also helping the company develop technologies for remote operation.
So far, Designated Driver conducts its operations with a remote driver sitting in front of a bank of six screens that provide video feeds from the vehicles. At Goodwood, Gittin will test prototype virtual-reality headsets provided by Samsung linked to a Galaxy S10 affixed to the windshield of the vehicle. The devices will maintain a 5G connection that is believed to be the first used to remotely control a vehicle.
That's part of a fledgling partnership between Samsung, Designated Driver and Vodafone. The three companies intend to work together to probe how 5G technology can support safety-critical applications, such as providing a secure and latency-free video connection for remote driving.
"That really pushes the required technology, camera technology, the latency technology and streaming under 5G, and developing the right APIs for phones in the application," said Yoon Lee, head of innovation for Samsung's North American division. "All those are required to go to the next level, and we're hoping to spark further development."
Gittin is making more than a cameo appearance — he has a role in that innovation. Accustomed to relying on sounds of the engine and the sense of G-forces acting on his body while driving cars at the edge of their performance capability, he's now learning to drive without those cues in teleoperation scenarios. His experience is helping the company ensure its screens convey the right information to future teleoperators and consider whether haptic vibrations or audio cues might be helpful in its systems.
"It's a very wild experience, because the only thing I can compare to that I've done is playing a video game," Gittin said. "But games don't have consequences and don't share the road with pedestrians and other vehicles. So there's certainly a very big responsibility that you feel behind the wheel."