Ford’s setup for remote controlling vehicles is simple, using off-the-shelf components.
Ford is testing technology that controls vehicles thousands of miles away using off-the-shelf parts and a standard 4G LTE connection. Think of it as a drone with wheels instead of wings.
At the automaker’s new Silicon Valley R&D center last week, software engineer Sudipto Aich sat at a desk with three computer monitors with a steering wheel and pedals designed for gaming. He hit the accelerator, and just like that, was driving a golf cart around a parking lot on Georgia Tech’s campus in Atlanta, 2,400 miles away. The system is one of 25 “mobility experiments” Ford commissioned to explore ideas that might one day appear in cars.
Controlling cars remotely is far less impressive than teaching them to drive themselves, and you don’t see the safety benefits that will come once humans are programmed out of the loop. But it’s an appealing alternative. For one, you don’t have to trust lines of code not to hit the grandmother crossing the street. (For this trial run, Ford had people in the Atlanta parking lot ready to operate the car if the remote connection dropped out.)
Ford engineer Sudipto Aich drives a golf cart through an Atlanta parking lot, from Palo Alto.
Two—and this part’s more important—it doesn’t rely on new or expensive technology. The controller is made by Logitech and costs less than $300. All the sensors are off the shelf. It’s easy to tap into the controllers on modern, especially electric vehicles (like golf carts), so you don’t need physical mechanisms to turn the wheel and apply the brakes or accelerator. Plus, it shows what can be done with the existing 4G LTE network, though the connection did suffer when the Georgia Tech students got out of class and back on their phones.
“This is basically an implementation of connectivity,” says Mike Tinskey, Ford’s director of electrification. “I wouldn’t say it’s ready for prime time, but I would say that it’s giving us some encouraging results of using existing infrastructure.”
There are a bunch of applications Ford is already considering. Rental car companies could use it to move vehicles around their parking lots. Car sharing services could redistribute vehicles when they get bunched up in one area. You could have a valet service without valets who crash Lamborghinis. Instead of letting your aging parents drive to your house for Thanksgiving, you could control their car remotely, or hire a service to do it for you.
And we, at least, are excited about the Gone in 60 Seconds sequel in which Nicolas Cage hacks the system and steals 50 cars from his sofa.