Remote control car

Remote control of autonomous cars could hasten vehicles’ uptake, says expert

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Leading computer scientist Professor Andrew Blake has praised a bid to create a system allowing operators in call centres to override self-driving capabilities and take command of vehicles where necessary.

Motorists could be lured into adopting autonomous car technology faster than they otherwise would if they knew there was a “fail-safe” option involving real human operators working remotely in call centres overriding the vehicles’ self-steering capabilities and taking command, a leading computer scientist has said.

Professor Andrew Blake, research director at the Alan Turing Institute, praised carmaker Nissan’s attempts to hone the technology that would enable just such a set-up for remote control of vehicles to be established.

Speaking at the International Robotics Showcase event at the IET’s venue at Savoy Place in London, Blake, who is working on a project involving artificial intelligence and driverless cars, declared: “An idea I love from Nissan, which they are actually trying, is that you have a call centre where an operator is responsible for one thousand cars and occasionally one of the cars at the top of that subsumption hierarchy will call out to the call centre and say, ‘Please drive me’. I really think that’s a good idea.”

He said this kind of remote driving of other people’s cars amounted to “sort of NASA-style technology”, adding: “If that really works, that could get us to deployability much faster, because that kind of drop-through, your fail-safe, would actually be human.”

Survey results published last week by automotive service company the RAC appeared to show a high degree of scepticism among motorists about the concept of self-driving cars. Enabling humans to be on hand at all times, albeit remotely, to take the reins in situations where robot drivers might struggle or where particular legal or moral issues come into play, could assuage some of the most pressing doubts about the technology.

As part of the robotics event at Savoy Place “companion robot” dogs and a selfie-taking android were also on display. In addition to Blake’s lecture there were talks on the role of robotics in space exploration and the use of drones in disaster relief efforts.

The implications for health and social care were also much discussed, with evangelists for technology like robotic rehabilitation tools for stroke sufferers predicting that robots will allow people to live independently for longer.

Dr Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield, who has co-authored a white paper on the subject, said: “I think we’ll see robots coming into the home doing different functions. So some of the things you’ve done in the kitchen, robots will take over. They may not be robots that look like robots - they may look like dishwashers that have an arm or something like that. Or a table that’s able to clear itself.

One of the real challenges is assisting people as they get older and less able to look after themselves so that we can help people stay independent as they grow old.”

Robotic “exoskeletons” could help some people with disabilities and may even replace wheelchairs in future, according to experts. A major research project to develop a robotic system that would assist people who struggle to get dressed and undressed is currently underway at Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

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