Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For all the talk of cars without drivers, the deployment of autonomous vehicles might still require humans controlling them from a distance. Most major AV companies are testing or planning to incorporate remote control — or teleoperations — in their robot-driven cars.

The big picture: Automated vehicles need help making decisions in complex situations, which is why the hype about fully self-driving cars remains unfulfilled. With humans taking the wheel via remote control, some companies hope to speed AV deployment, but questions remain about safety.

What's happening: Most AV companies plan to use teleops to some degree, including GM Cruise, Toyota, Zoox and Nissan.

  • At Waymo, which launched its commercial robotaxi service earlier this year, if a car is unsure about what to do, it can ping a human for advice (or default to a safe action).
  • Phantom Auto's remote technology can be applied by any automaker.
  • California approved driverless testing without backup drivers, but only if the vehicles can be operated remotely.
  • Starsky Robotics today filed its Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment with the federal government, outlining how it plans to use remote control drivers to deploy automated trucks for long-haul shipping.

Details: Starsky's system — currently operating in three trucks — allows trained drivers to sit in an office and control a truck using computer screens, buttons, a steering wheel and pedals.

  • Drivers can remotely drive a truck from a distribution center to a highway, where automation takes over. At that point, the driver is only supervising the truck to help with complex, context-based decisions.
  • When the truck exits the highway, the remote driver regains control to steer the truck to its final destination.
"Computers are great at saying, 'Let’s keep between the lanes and manage the speed. But making a judgment call on whether now is a good time to pass is really hard. It only gets worse in disorganized environments like truck yards."
— Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder, Starsky Robotics

Why it matters: Teleoperation could help alleviate a labor shortage, currently pegged at 63,000 truck drivers, says Seltz-Axmacher. The American Trucking Associations warns that could worsen to 175,000 by 2026.

  • Starsky Robotics envisions 1 driver guiding 30-40 trucks in an eight-hour shift.
  • The company says driving from behind a desk is less taxing than the typical long monotonous stretches on the road.

Yes, but: It's hard to imagine a remote driver hundreds of miles away can make a quick judgment by dropping in on a complex situation. In most cases, the AV will simply stop and wait for further instruction.

  • Another concern is that teleoperation relies on ordinary cellular networks that, if delayed, could prevent a remote operator from making a quick decision at a critical time.
  • Safety groups say that it's too much like a video game, with human lives at stake.

The bottom line: The vision of self-driving cars might still include human drivers, even when they're not in the vehicle.

Go deeper: The great auto disruption

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how Waymo's robotaxis interact with humans.

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