Tech firm Mapless AI is testing two remotely operated vehicles on roadways and passenger kerbs at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).

As the airport’s xBridge innovation programme’s latest partner, Mapless AI is trialling two “teleoperated” cars – vehicles remotely driven by a person miles away – at PIT.

The tests involve a participant positioned in one of PIT’s car parks summoning Mapless’ car (a Kia hatchback) with an app, and an operator in downtown Pittsburgh connected to the vehicle via commercial cellular networks who 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.

Mapless calls it “car-hailing,” and the possibilities are transformative for transportation networks, according to the company’s co-founder Jeffrey Kane Johnson.

“Just imagine if vehicles handled parking on their own, where they all went to some designated spot when you didn’t need them and came back when you did,” he said. “No more streets littered with cars, no more random parking lots eating up space, and no more having to remember where you parked.”

The foundation of Mapless’ technology is safety; both Johnson and co-founder Philipp Robbel are experts in autonomous vehicle safety engineering, with experience leading teams at tech giants Apple, Bosch and Uber.

During the testing period at PIT, a person will be in the driver’s seat of the vehicle at all times as a backup to the remote operator.

“Safety is at the core of our mission and innovation,” said Robbel. “Each Mapless vehicle we deploy will have enough intelligence on board, ensuring total safety in reaction to changing network conditions.”

The technology is designed to keep the vehicle safe even when connectivity with the remote operator is lost. In the event of a disconnection, the vehicle decelerates until it comes to a complete stop and waits to either reconnect or be taken over by a manual driver.

Mapless’ equipment requires only a low-profile lightweight rack outfitted with cameras and other automotive sensors that can be secured to a vehicle’s roof and wired directly into its computer system.

As its system is refined through testing, Mapless expects installation or removal of the rack to take 15 minutes or less with no impact to the vehicle. With no modifications required and a temporary installation that does not void standard warranties, resale values are unaffected.

In its nearly three years of existence, the xBridge programme at PIT has tested UV-enhanced robot scrubbers, air filtration monitoring systems, and algae-powered “living technology” designed to reduce CO2 levels.

“At xBridge, we build partnerships with early-stage companies driving innovation in their industries, giving us early access to new, potentially game-changing technologies while giving these companies the opportunity to test and pilot in a real-world operating environment,” said PIT’s xBridge director, Cole Wolfson.

Image: Beth Hollerich/ Pittsburgh International Airport