electric vehicles

Stealth Robocar Startup Sees Remote Drivers as Autonomy Shortcut

Credit: bloombergquint.com

Deploying vast fleets of robocars has been much tougher than Tesla Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and others thought. One European startup is now pitching an intermediate step to full autonomy: teledriving.

Germany’s Vay, which has been quietly testing a fleet of remote-controlled electric vehicles all over Berlin, plans to roll out a mobility service in Europe and potentially the U.S. next year.

For a fraction of the price of an Uber, customers will be able to order a remote-controlled car, drive themselves to their desired destination and then get out, leaving it to a human teledriver miles away to either park the vehicle or steer it to a next client. In a later step, Vay plans to introduce a ride-hailing service that’s entirely remote-controlled.

“We’re launching next year — not in five years — with services that have huge benefits over what is out there,” Chief Executive Officer Thomas von der Ohe, who previously worked on Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa and at self-driving startup Zoox, said in an interview.

The concept may be novel, though it isn’t new. Former Nissan Motor Co. boss Carlos Ghosn touted the approach at the 2017 Consumer Electronics show, showcasing a platform for managing fleets of autonomous vehicles developed from National Aeronautics and Space Administration technology.

Zoox’s Struggles While von der Ohe says he still believes in full autonomy, he learned at Zoox how difficult and expensive it can be to develop robot cars. While Zoox raised a significant sum of venture capital and at one point was valued at $3.2 billion, the startup struggled to commercialize its technology and ran low on cash during the pandemic. It agreed to a $1.3 billion sale to Amazon in August 2020.

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

The company’s trained teledrivers operate from stations equipped with a steering wheel, pedals and several large monitors for 360-degree vision without blind spots. The system has built-in redundancies, prevents speeding and overlays safety information onto the screens to make rides safer.