New Driverless ‘Remote Control’ Cars Being Tested At Pittsburgh Airport

The theme of Peter Thiel’s famous refrain about the tech industry’s lack of ambition, “they promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters” was picked up and taken forward early in the pandemic by Netscape creator Marc Andreessen in an essay “It’s Time To Build.” A lot has changed since Thiel first made his remark, though. For one thing we now have 280 characters!

Not only don’t we have flying cars, we don’t really have full self-driving ones either. Eventually my daughter’s children will ask me, “Grandpa, is it true you used to drive cars yourself? How did you manage to avoid getting in accidents all the time?” The truth is we didn’t!

Tesla is farthest along in the marketing of full self-driving, but their tech gets criticized both for being too conservative (unnecessary braking and stops) and too aggressive (doesn’t obey all traffic laws, the same way people don’t). Eventually we’ll get there.

It feels like the babiest step imaginable in this process, but driverless ‘remote control’ cars are now being tested at the Pittsburgh airport. Mapless AI is testing tech that turns “any regular vehicle into a remote-controlled one” (but not a self-driving one). For the Pittsburgh airport project they’re using.. two KIAs.

The idea is that the project will eventually be able to “pick you up at your car [in the parking lot] and then you can drive yourself to the terminal.” They could also bring your rental car to you on arrival. Though that seems like a recipe for traffic congestion, low-emission buses are far more efficient.

Users will be able to summon one of the vehicles with an app, and an operator in downtown Pittsburgh, connected to the vehicle via commercial cellular networks, will drive the car to your location.

…As part of the testing program, a person in one of PIT’s parking lots summons Mapless’ car (a Kia hatchback) with an app, and an operator in downtown Pittsburgh connected to the vehicle via commercial cellular networks drives it to that person’s exact location.

The person gets in and drives manually to the terminal. After he or she gets out, the remote operator again takes over and guides the car to a temporary location where it waits for the next call.

Credit: Mapless AI

The company talks about “imagin[ing] if vehicles handled parking on their own,” though that’s something Tesla does reasonably well without a remote operator today. They also envision sending cars away to somewhere uncongested, and then being able to have them return to you when you’re ready (Tesla’s “Summon” feature, again with no remote operator). You also wouldn’t need to remember where you parked, but vehicle apps and geolocation solve this already today – you see where your car is on a map on your phone.

For the airport test, though, there has to be someone in the driver’s seat even when the vehicle is being operated remotely. Meanwhile other autonomous driving technologies have been testing in Pittsburgh already.

Credit: Mapless AI

I’m excited by advances. I’m a huge fan of people dedicating themselves to them. I’m frustrated by their pace, and want to see a mindset shift where we recognize that the technology doesn’t have to be perfect – it just needs to be better than the humans on the road today. For all their faults, autonomous software doesn’t drive drunk!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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