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Remote-controlled cars prepare us for our autonomous future

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The road to fully autonomous vehicles is long and marred by technology challenges, from the cost of developing the technology and commercial expansion to public acceptance and safety concerns. And that is if people want to stop driving at all.

But there is something that can help this transition, that can bridge the gap between the autonomous believers and self-driving skeptics: remote-controlled vehicles.

And no, we’re not talking about toy cars, these are real remote-controlled cars for adults. In this piece, I’m going to explain how they work, what the commercial and technological implications are, and whether they can help us move towards an autonomous future.

What are remote controlled cars?

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Essentially, a remote-controlled car is a vehicle that can be driven by someone who is not physically in it.

Instead, the person driving the car is in a remote location, but sees the road just as if they were behind the wheel. In addition to on-road applications, remote-controlled vehicles are also used by the military in scenarios where removing the driver is the safest option.

How remote car sharing works

Picture this: you book a vehicle through an app, but instead of having to go find it, the car is driven to your door remotely by someone in a command center. As soon as you start driving, you take full control of the vehicle and – on your departure – the remote control resumes control and the car drives to the next customer.

How remote-controlled car-sharing can capture the public’s imagination

People don’t like change, especially if they’re used to the convenience of stepping out the door, hopping in their car. Who wants to walk a few blocks away to car sharing when it’s raining, or when you’re juggling shopping, kids, or luggage? That’s what remote-controlled car sharing offers over the more common smart rental.

As much as many would like us to move away from cars, the fact remains that, despite urban planners’ efforts to introduce micromobility programs and public transport infrastructure, the number of cars purchased in Europe is steadily increasing.

In Germany for example, statistics shows that in 2021 there were 580 cars per 1000 inhabitants. Ten years ago there were 517. The share of households with two cars also increased from 23.4% to 27%.

And if we look at the usefulness of these privately purchased cars, despite the love of driving, they are usually driven for an hour a day, if so, and then parked for the remaining 23 hours.

Car sharing offers an alternative to privately owned vehicles, reducing the need for households with one or more cars. It saves drivers money as there is no responsibility for annual registration, insurance premiums, repairs or charging costs.

Another great benefit is that drivers can try different cars based on their transportation needs for each trip. For example, if you need to transport a group, you can select a passenger car. Need to move something? A bus. What’s more, car sharing can provide a first taste of electric vehicle driving, a great litmus test for those traditionally concerned about range, and it also means fewer gas-guzzling vehicles on the road.

Drivers also gain insight into the actual costs of each journey, which can motivate them to opt for other forms of transport for shorter journeys.

There’s also a more prosaic reason: many people drive because they love driving and can’t imagine a future where they don’t get the chance to get behind the wheel, at least sometimes. Remote-controlled car sharing does not take away from this. Well, at least not yet.

Cities also benefit from these schemes, as they reduce the need for parking infrastructure such as garages, lots, and street zones.

The commercial opportunity for remote-controlled car sharing

Car sharing bridges the gap between car ownership and a future of on-demand, fully autonomous vehicles. And when you add remote control to the mix, things get interesting.

However, there is an important note to reiterate here. If you order a remote-controlled vehicle, you don’t get AI maneuvering the car. Instead, it’s a real human being.