The great venture capitalist Elian Minsk has decided to start an "autonomous" car driving service.
But who needs complicated AI based systems when he can hire tech support workers in India to drive cars for 2000 dollars a year (about 1 dollar per hour). And then turn around and charge U.S. subscribers
2~3 dollars per hour. The technical challenge then shifts from creating futuristic AI, into creating a reliable video link system, mostly using existing technology.
Some strategic campaign donations were made, and lobbyists were hired and successfully persuaded congress to pass a law allowing foreign persons to be certified to remotely drive cars on U.S. roads if they passed a qualified training program.
A training program was created in India where someone could pay $10 to take a class on American driving. At the conclusion of the course they are given an exam where they remotely drive a car located in a remote test facility. If they passed they were hired as a remote driver.
three part wireless communications system was created. To the maximum extent possible, existing cell towers are used to reduce satellite usage. Dedicated communications towers were also put up in major cities where there would be a lot of bandwidth requirements. A high bandwidth satellite network was launched to facilitate the transmission of audio, video, and commands between the cars and the remote drivers in places where towers can't reach (EDIT: https://www.starlink.com/). Of course each com links is authenticated and encrypted. Compression is used to the maximum extend possible in the video to conserve bandwidth.
Safety is a priority, so two communications frequencies are always used for redundancy. All driving commands and a low resolution version of each video link is always transmitted on both frequencies. The remote operator can select a main channel(usually the front) to also transmit in high-res. The high-res channel will use only one link at a time based on availability but is not redundant. If the high-res link is lost the remote driver will still see the low-res version as a backup. Furthermore the transmission format for the video frames is broken into large blocks that can be received independently. So if noise disrupts the data in one video frame only a piece of the image is lost, not the whole frame.
A hardware package was developed in conjunction with a major luxury auto maker. The hardware package allows certain models of their cars to be controlled remotely using a wireless link. Owners of those models of cars pay
$100 per month for up to 2 hours of remote driving per day (EDIT: ten dollars per hour).
Equipment on the car:
- Cell transmitter / receivers. Satellite transmitter / receiver.
- Six cameras. One on each corner of the car facing out diagonally. One front facing. One rear facing.
- Two microphones on the outside of the car so the driver can hear traffic.
- A video-phone system inside the car.
- A computer module inside the car that accepts throttle, breaking, steering, and signaling commands from the remote operator.
- A rear facing distance sensor.
- A forward facing distance sensor.
Here is how the typical use-case would work.
- The driver presses a button to request a remote driver.
- The car is assigned to one of the remote drivers. The remote drivers are ready and waiting in an office and should confirm in under 1 minute.
- The remote driver sends confirmation to the car and an indicator is shown to the driver.
- The driver presses a button to allow the remote drive to take over.
- The remote driver can take over any time they choose.
- The occupants of the car can press a button to immediately cancel remote driving at any time.
The remote operator can place a voice call directly to the vehicle to talk to the occupants. The occupants may do the same. To maintain privacy the call will not allow any voice/video to be sent/received on either side unless both sides accept. There is also a text messaging system that the occupants and remote driver may use. The main use of both of these systems is to tell the remote driver where to go. All parties also have access to a GPS navigation system.
If communication with the wireless network is lost the driver is alerted immediately. The car enters a driverless autonomous mode. This mode is much simpler than a full self-driving car and is just meant to bring the car to a safe stop.
- In this mode the car maintains its current speed and direction for 5 seconds and then begins to slow down to 0mph over the course of 15 seconds. The 5 second period is mainly to allow the local driver to take over before the car starts slowing down.
- The car may slow down faster or slower to avoid collision (automatic braking/acceleration) as indicated by the two distance sensors.
- In the driverless mode the driver in the car may take over at any time by pressing the gas or brake (similar to exiting cruise control on many cars).
Are there any major flaws in the system?
So based on comments it looks like the price needs to be closer to 10 dollars per hour. Thats fine because Taxis and Uber both charge several dollars per mile, so the service would still be far less expensive than either of those. The price of driving Coast to Coast across the U.S. (about 3000 miles) would be around 600 dollars for the driver plus 200 dollars for gas, which is way cheaper than either plane or bus tickets if you are taking family of four.
The pricing model needs to be more flexible and just let people pay by the hour or by the month rather than having a 2 hour per day limit. That makes use-cases like road trips a lot more practical.
Its not practical to prosecute someone in a foreign country. The problem of legal liability is tricky with any self driving system (you can't prosecute an AI either). The simplest way to solve it is to make the occupants of the car bear all responsibility. They have access to the kill switch, and its their fault for not pressing it if they see that the remote driver is going to violate traffic laws or cause property damage.
Many people cited latency as a big problem.
a) Using regular internet resources it looks like round trip latency is around 500ms.
b) Satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit would have a latency close to 500ms as well.
c) Using satellites located at an altitude of <1000 miles could do substantially better (about 150ms round trip).
The distance between India and the U.S. is around 8000-9000 miles. This is an arc spanning an angle of about 130 degrees. The radius of the earth is about 4000 miles. If satellites were placed at 1000 miles altitude then the signal would travel 1000 miles up to the satellites. It would then travel between the satellites in an arc of length 2 * pi * 5000 miles * 130 degrees / 360 degrees. And then it would travel 1000 miles down. So 13,300 miles total one way, or 26600 miles round trip. At the speed of light the signal would take 143ms to propagate round trip. If we add a few ms of latency in the satellites then we might round up to 150ms.
Coincidently, Elon Musk just launched the first 60 Star Link satellites https://www.starlink.com/ . The total plan is to have over 12,000 satellites. The satellites are positioned in low earth orbit at 340 to 823 miles, which is exactly the right spot to achieve low-latency communications between India and the U.S. Additionally the satellite network has massive bandwidth. 20Gbps per satellite means that they could give a connection of a few Mbps to several million users at once. The bandwidth appears to be adequate to support millions of real-time video feeds. https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/15/18624630/spacex-elon-musk-starlink-internet-satellites-falcon-9-rocket-launch-live
Satellite communications could be blocked by bad weather or obstacles. That obviously makes the system unusable in certain cases. But its still useable most of the time so that's not a deal-breaker for me.
As for plausability, the company Phantom Auto is already doing remote driving with domestic drivers, on a limited basis as a backup for AI systems. https://techcrunch.com/2019/04/18/phantom-auto-raises-13-5m-to-expand-remote-driving-business-to-delivery-bots-and-forklifts/