8 sep 21

Why Vay’s ‘teledriving’ may be the future of autonomous mobility

From 2022, German mobility startup Vay will offer driverless mobility – the first company in Europe to do so. But it’s ‘driverless’ with a twist: for parts of the journey, the vehicles will be remote-controlled by human operators. Vay calls it ‘teledriving’. 

In total secret, Vay has been ‘teledriving’ on the streets of Berlin for two years now. Sitting in a room at Vay HQ in Tempelhof, operators are managing Vay’s fleet of now 10 driverless cars by remote control as they move across the German capital. 

Virtual presence

The operators are surrounded by screens giving them an all-round view from the driver’s seat, and their headphones even pipe in the ambient sounds. For all intents and purposes, it’s as if they’re in the car, driving it.

This virtual presence gives them the input they need to accelerate, brake, turn, etcetera. It’s a system Vay founder and CEO Thomas von der Ohe calls ‘teledriving’.

For now, the law stipulates the cars themselves must also have a ‘safety driver’ behind the wheel, who can intervene if necessary. However, thanks to technological advances and regulatory changes, Vay will soon be able to dispense with these safety drivers. 

European first

Vay has chosen to reveal itself because it’s time. The company wants to launch its autonomous service next year – which would make it the first to offer a driverless mobility service in Europe. The company needs attention, talented staff and more investment – Vay has attracted €28 million in venture capital so far; for comparison, GM’s autonomous-vehicle subsidiary Cruise generated more than €2.3 billion in financing in 2021 alone. 

And yet the company’s ambitions are huge. It wants to bring Europe back into the forefront of the race to develop driverless vehicles. Its competitors in the robotaxi sphere – Google’s Waymo, Amazon’s Zoox, to name two more – are banking on lidar technology to guide their vehicles. Waymo is already offering autonomous taxi rides in parts of Phoenix, Arizona. 

Autonomy gap

But the gap between the current capacity of AI-powered self-driving vehicles and full autonomy remains large. Experts expect it will take another five to 10 years to bridge. Vay’s remote-control solution bridged that gap today, by using ‘teledrivers’. The Vay system allows for full autonomy on long, well-marked stretches, with an operator taking over remote control on more complicated parts of the trip. In other words: teledriving may be the future for autonomous mobilty – at least for now.

In 2022, Vay wants to start by offering a mix between a driverless taxi service and a rental car service. Here’s how a typical Vay trip could work. A customer orders a vehicle, which is driven by remote-control to their location. The customer then drives the vehicle themself. When they’ve reached their destination, remote control is switched on again, and the vehicle can drive off on its own again. 

Challenging Uber

It’s a business model that could challenge that of today’s dominant rideshare providers; according to one of Vay’s investors, it could be up to 60% cheaper than Uber. But Vay wants to do more than just be a taxi (or an Uber). The company also wants to offer logistics and delivery services. In Europe and the U.S. alone, it is looking to break into markets with a combined value of €3 billion. 

Remote-controlling vehicles is a unique approach to autonomous driving. According to Vay, the human element allows for a more flexible, intuitive result than AI. However, at this stage, Vay does not offer remote-control driving on motorways. Passengers can see and talk with their driver via smartphone and in-car intercom.     

Impressive range

Vay has an impressive range of backers, has attracted talent with experience in Silicon Valley, at Waymo, Tesla and Zoox and at various OEMs, and has offices in Berlin and Portland (OR). The company is confident that after one or two more investment rounds, it will be able to finance itself. It is not yet clear where its service will be launched – although Berlin seems like a good bet. Wherever it will be, Vay will need to recruit a significant number of ‘teledrivers’. 

Vay is not the only German startup in the ‘teledrive’ area. Munich company Fernride is developing a similar application, specifically oriented towards LCVs and trucks – an innovative way to get round the Europe-wide driver shortages. For now, Fernride concentrates on vehicles operating at plants and warehouses, so not on the open road. It claims one operator can manage up to 25 LCVs and trucks – consecutively, not at the same time. 

Image: Vay

Authored by: Frank Jacobs