In this Cars of the Future exclusive, we talk teleoperation as a steppingstone to self-driving with Sandip Gangakhedkar, CTO of Imperium Drive.
The London-based mobility startup made headlines last year when the BBC featured its Fetch rental car delivery trial in Milton Keynes. “It’s driverless but not autonomous,” explained CEO Koosha Kaveh. “There’s still a human involved, but they’ll be sitting in a control centre controlling the vehicle in the same way you’d control a drone.”
In October, Imperium reached the last round of the Zenzic CAM Scale-Up selection process, with Programme Director Mark Cracknell praising “The quality and range of the finalists – testament to the innovative solutions that will make future mobility cleaner, safer and more efficient”.
Human approach to self-driving
SG: “We were formed in the summer of 2019 to build a new human-in-the-loop approach to autonomous driving. Fetch is our mobility service, which commercialises the technology we’ve built.
“Designed for urban door-to-door delivery, it’s based on remote driving. A trained remote driver, or operator, is responsible for driving the car on the road, based on live video feeds and sensor feedback sent over public infrastructure, like 4G and 5G networks.
“We have our own small fleet of cars and are running a small-scale commercial pilot within the city boundaries of Milton Keynes. A select group of users can have the cars delivered to their doorsteps driverlessly. That’s our main USP.
“Once the car is delivered, the customer can unlock it and drive it themselves, so at that point it ceases to be any kind of driverless experience. Once they’ve finished using it, the remote operator can re-take control and bring it back to base. It’s a new take on how autonomy can be developed sustainably and incrementally.
“As well as the UK government’s code of practice for trialling automated vehicles, we’ve also taken on board additional guidelines and specifications (from BSI, CCAV, the Law Commission and others), around what it means to be safe, responsible and socially equitable.
“The socially equitable aspect is often overlooked. Fetch decouples car ownership from car access, so you don’t need to own a car to enjoy its benefits.
“As an industry, we’re still at an early stage in exploring topics like public acceptance and socio-economic impacts. If you use the Gartner Hype Cycle, a common way of viewing emerging technologies, then 2021 was probably peak ‘trough of disillusionment’, and now we’re entering the ‘slope of enlightenment’.
“Roll-out has to be gradual, because it has to be done responsibly. At the same time, our human-in-the-loop approach can be an important steppingstone to full self-driving.
“It allows a remote human to take the driving decisions, as opposed to an artificially intelligent entity. That’s key to responsibly scaling and improving the technology, slowly reducing the dependence on the remote driver.
“We are definitely looking at expanding to other cities as soon as the model has been validated.”