German robotaxi startup sees remote pilots as a shortcut to autonomy

Deploying large fleets of robotaxis has been much more difficult than Tesla, Alphabet’s Waymo and others thought. A European startup is now offering an intermediate step towards total autonomy: telecontrol.

Germany’s Vay, who has quietly tested a fleet of remote-controlled electric vehicles across Berlin, plans to roll out a mobility service in Europe and potentially the United States next year.

For a fraction of the price of an Uber, customers will be able to order a remote-controlled car, drive to their desired destination and then exit, leaving a human teleconductor to park the vehicle or direct it to an upcoming customer.

In a later stage, Vay plans to introduce a fully remote-controlled VTC service.

“We’re launching next year – not in five years – with services that have huge advantages over what’s out there,” said Thomas von der Ohe, CEO of Amazon.com and the self-driving startup. Zoox said in an interview.

The concept may be new, even if it is not new. Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn touted the approach at Consumer Electronics 2017, showcasing an autonomous vehicle fleet management platform developed using technology from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The struggles of Zoox

While von der Ohe says he still believes in full autonomy, he taught Zoox how difficult and expensive it can be to develop robotic cars.
While Zoox raised a significant amount of venture capital and was at one point valued at $ 3.2 billion, the startup struggled to commercialize its technology and ran out of cash during the pandemic. He accepted a $ 1.3 billion sale to Amazon in August 2020.

Vay’s von der Ohe and his co-founders – electric car engineer and developer Fabrizio Scelsi and Bogdan Djukic, who created software for Skype – have debauched people from Google, Audi and Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to develop hardware. and software for a telecontrol approach first.

The company’s trained teleconductors operate from stations equipped with a steering wheel, pedals and several large screens for 360-degree vision without blind spots. The system has built-in redundancies, prevents speeding and superimposes safety information on screens to make journeys safer.
What awaits us

Vay says he’s solved latency issues and successfully controlled cars remotely in extreme situations requiring emergency braking and evasive maneuvers. Its CEO says starting with telecontrol will allow the company to build its brand and collect valuable operational data so that it can gradually introduce stand-alone features as they become available.

But the startup that employs around 70 people will have to overcome challenges like winning over local regulators, raising enough money to fund its expansion, and managing spikes in supply and demand without frustrating customers.

Vay has so far raised around $ 30 million from investors, including Twitter chairman Patrick Pichette and venture capital firm Atomico, and is open to selling shares to the public in the longer term, has said von der Ohe.

The Vay team discusses potential partnerships with major automakers as the company evolves and explores future use cases – consider steering a truck remotely while the driver of the vehicle is resting.

While equipping cars with autonomous driving technology can cost up to $ 100,000 in cost, Vay says its proprietary software and hardware costs just a few thousand dollars and could be installed on any car in the market.

“Vay won us over for economic reasons,” said Niall Wass, partner of Atomico, a former Uber executive. “You can get a product on the road faster and a lot cheaper than looking for a level 4 or level 5 range.”

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