Nissan’s Path to Self-Driving Cars? Humans in Call Centers
By ALEX DAVIES
Jan 5 2017
“This is it!” Maarten Sierhuis says. “I mean, look at this.” He points to a photo of road construction at an intersection in Sunnyvale, California, near Nissan’s Silicon Valley research center, which Sierhuis runs. A line of cones shunts traffic to the left side of the double yellow line. The light is red. A worker holds a “Slow” sign. It’s the sort of seemingly unremarkable situation that can trigger convulsions in the brain of an autonomous vehicle.
“There is so much cognition that you need here,” Sierhuis says. The driver—or the car—has to interpret the placement of the cones and the behavior of the human worker to understand that in this case, it’s OK to drive through a red light on the wrong side of the road. “This is not gonna happen in the next five to ten years.”
It’s a stunning admission, in its way: Nissan’s R&D chief believes the truly driverless car—something many carmakers and tech giants have promised to deliver within five years or fewer—is an unreachable short-term goal. Reality: one; robots: zero. Even a system that could handle 99 percent of driving situations will cause trouble for the company trying to promote, and make money off, the technology. “We will always need the human in the loop,” Sierhuis says.
But Nissan has a solution: a call center with human meatbags ready to take command via remote control.
Call for Help
Now, if you’ve ever telephoned a cable provider, airline, or insurance company for customer service, the idea of a driverless car that relies on headset-wearing cubicle-dwellers hardly seems cutting edge. But Sierhaus says his team’s idea, called “Seamless Autonomous Mobility,” is a simple, scaleable answer to the fiendish problem of making robot drivers do everything humans can.
Other players in the autonomous field aren’t about to announce their tech can’t match the vagaries of the real world, but they have looked into remote human backups—“teleoperation,” in the parlance of the business. “It’s going to be massively important,” says Karl Iagnemma, co-founder and CEO of self-driving startup nuTonomy, which is developing a remote control system. Even cars that can handle just about anything will have the occasional failure, even if that’s being hit by another vehicle. And in that case, you want a human around to decide what to do. It’s like an elevator, Iagnemma says: You don’t need a human operator, but you’ve still got a button to call for help when you need it.
Google’s self-driving car outfit, Waymo, has studied the idea, a spokesperson says. Uber declined to comment on teleoperation, but in 2015 the company filed a patent for a system that would let an autonomous vehicle follow a human-driven car, or get help from a remote operator. Stealthy self-driving car startup Zoox has a patent for a “teleoperation system and method for trajectory modification of autonomous vehicles;” Toyota has one for “remote operation of autonomous vehicle in unexpected environment.”
Now, Nissan’s cubicle-based drivers aren’t emergency backups. If the car hits black ice, it’s in charge of staying on the road. There’s no feasible way to get the human into the loop in time to act. But they can help out when the car encounters conditions it’s unsure how to handle. If a Nissan happened upon the construction scene from Sierhuis’ photo, it would stop and ping its control center. A human operator would look around using the car’s cameras and other sensors and issue new instructions—direct control would pose latency issues. Like: When it’s safe, cross the double yellow and get back to the right side after 20 yards. Or a new instruction set could ensure packages and disabled passengers get dropped off in exactly the right spot, and help assess potentially dangerous situations on the road. But most of all, the teleoperator is there to make sure the car’s doesn’t just shut down when it’s too dumb to know what’s going on.