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Texas A&M is going to use remote controls for its self-propelled shuttles

Texas A&M University adjusts its self-driving pilot program in the city of Bryan, Texas, to have people remotely control and operate shuttles from September, making it one of the first commercial implementations of tele-operation technology in the country.

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The tele-operation technology is provided by a Portland, Oregon-based startup named Designated Driver. This allows people at Texas A&M to operate the shuttles remotely in situations where the self-driving system may not be sniffing and they can also communicate with passengers on board. The new functionality could help solve a problem that autonomous shuttle programs have encountered in the same way: crashes.

The low-speed autonomous shuttles are currently whispering their way through a handful of urban areas and campuses across the country and are among the first practical tests of self-propelled technology. Because they are extremely limited in size – they usually carry no more than a dozen short-mile or one-mile loop passengers – they serve more as an introduction to the idea of ​​self-driving vehicles than as an exploration of how useful the technology might be .

Despite the low speeds on planned routes, a few of these shuttles have already fallen into fenders. The first program launched in the United States, in downtown Las Vegas, was cut off on a first truck in 2017 by a delivery truck. Saw a similar service in New York self-driving shuttle bumps into a car one day in front of the public launch.

So-called "safety drivers" or "safety operators" driving on board are supposed to prevent these crashes, but in the case of the Las Vegas incident the manual controls were canceled. Keeping teloperators on standby as a safety net is a potential short-term solution to this problem, according to Manuela Papadopol, CEO of Designated Driver.

"Sometimes things don't work. Systems fail. We are still in its infancy when it comes to autonomy & # 39 ;, Papadopol says. She also says that teleoperators are better able to explain to passengers why a vehicle has stopped because they can see the full readout of the sensors that feed the autonomous system.

Papadopol says that the success of the basic principles of teleoperation could now solve other problems on the road, especially because companies want to get the safety operators out of the vehicles. She says that tele-operators have a & # 39; human & # 39; element by instructing riders from a distance or by serving as dismantled informative guides.

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"Think of when you are on an asphalt in an airplane and you have not moved an inch in 20 minutes. There is a moment of comfort when you hear the captain talking to you:" Wait a minute, we'll get there, "she says. "People trust people more than machines."

Associate Professor at the head of the Texas A&M Autonomous Shuttle Program, Srikanth Saripalli, says he "realized that there were many situations where human input was needed" during the first few months of the pilot, which took two hours a day in a half-mile loop in downtown Bryan. "So we started working with Designated Driver to record remote monitoring and, if necessary, a teleoperation system so that we could compare how effective a safety driver is over the teloperation system."

The amplified operation will take a longer mile-and-a-half route, and the remote operation could make alternative routes possible, according to the Designated Driver. Saripalli says that the city of Bryan has access to the program's data and will be able to call whether Texas can get A&M safety drivers out of the vehicle.

Adding counting operation to the mix means adding more technology to each of these vehicles, and it also means increasing the number of people involved in the short term – neither good thing if the idea ever scales up while it also Cost remains effective. The purpose of the designated driver to move the safety driver completely from the shuttle to a remote location may reduce that, but it also opens up a lot of new questions, including where are those jobs going? Who's gonna do them?

For now, Designated Driver will perform the external operation from Texas A&M and train Saripalli staff to monitor the shuttles. Determining how many shuttles one person can monitor at a time and what an entire staff should look like is part of what the company wants to learn from the program, says CTO Walter Sullivan, designated director.

That said, the history of the technology industry with external (and often outsourced) jobs is full of examples of the idea that going sideways. When teleoperation starts as a solution to some challenges for self-driving cars, Designated Driver and the many other startups that are behind this technology will have to answer those questions (and more) about who does the work and how that work looks like.