Complementing autonomous vehicles with designated drivers and teleoperation

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are undeniably advancing, transitioning from sci-fi dreams to practical reality. Although they have not yet achieved perfection, progress is accelerating, thanks in part to innovative companies like Designated Driver. This Portland-based startup has developed a system enabling human drivers to remotely monitor and control driverless cars, addressing critical safety and operational challenges.

Under optimal, predictable conditions, autonomous cars perform well—think of long, straight roads with minimal surprises. However, they struggle with unexpected obstacles and adverse weather. The solution? A designated driver.

A designated driver is a trained human driver who can take over remotely when needed, ensuring that AVs can navigate through road construction, inclement weather, and other complex scenarios. This practice, known as teleoperation, effectively extends the usability of autonomous vehicles to areas previously deemed unsuitable.

Benefits of Assigning Designated Drivers for Autonomous Vehicles

  • Enhanced Safety and Reliability: Provides a safety net for AVs, particularly in unpredictable situations, allowing for swift human intervention during road hazards, adverse weather, or unexpected obstacles.
  • Addressing Public Concerns: Alleviates public apprehension about autonomous vehicles by ensuring human oversight, which can foster greater acceptance of AV technology.
  • New Job Opportunities: Creates new job roles in an industry often criticized for reducing employment, involving human operators in emergency interventions and passenger experience management.
  • Improved Passenger Experience: Enables human operators to recognize and respond to passengers in distress more effectively than automated systems, especially during medical emergencies.
  • Inclusivity and Accessibility: Benefits passengers with specific needs, such as those with speech impediments, strong accents, or cognitive impairments, by providing human operators who can understand and respond appropriately.
  • Extended Operational Range: Allows AVs to be used in more diverse and challenging environments, expanding their usability beyond predictable and controlled conditions.

Collaborative Innovation for Designated Drivers

Startups like Phantom Auto, Starsky Robotics, Veniam, and Designated Driver are setting up operations centers where remote drivers continuously monitor for challenges that AV algorithms struggle to handle. Larger companies, including Valeo, Uber, and General Motors, are also advancing their teleoperation strategies.

The collaboration between Designated Driver and Visteon demonstrates how teleoperation can work in tandem with AV technology to navigate these complexities safely.

Visteon’s DriveCore platform, designed for scalable autonomous driving applications up to SAE Level 4, integrates seamlessly with Designated Driver’s teleoperation capabilities. DriveCore comprises three key components: Compute, Runtime, and Studio, each playing a pivotal role in processing, development, and performance evaluation of autonomous algorithms. Designated Driver’s teleoperations stack enhances this platform by providing three core functionalities:

  • Remote Driving: Direct control of the vehicle with real-time video feedback and access to vehicle state data.
  • Remote Assistance: Augments the autonomy system, offering guidance during highway driving or complex scenarios.
  • Remote Monitoring: Enables fleet monitoring with live video and real-time diagnostics.

These capabilities ensure that autonomous vehicles can be safely guided through critical situations that might otherwise lead to a minimum risk maneuver, potentially compromising safety.

One of the significant advantages of teleoperation is the potential to alleviate public fear of autonomous vehicles. A survey by AAA revealed that 71 percent of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car, up from 63 percent in 2017. Knowing that a human is overseeing the vehicle and can take control if necessary might ease these concerns and encourage broader acceptance of AV technology.

Additionally, teleoperation introduces new job opportunities in an industry often criticized for reducing employment. This human involvement also has practical benefits beyond safety. For example, a human operator can more easily recognize and respond to a passenger in distress, such as during a health emergency, than the vehicle’s onboard systems.

Components of a Robust System

DriveCore’s components—Compute, Runtime, and Studio—play essential roles in this ecosystem. Compute provides the foundational hardware, Runtime offers real-time processing, and Studio facilitates the development and evaluation of autonomous algorithms. By augmenting these capabilities with Designated Driver’s teleoperation, AVs gain a robust safety backup. For instance, during hardware failures or sensor issues caused by bad weather, a remote driver can take over, guiding the vehicle out of potential danger.

Overcoming Development Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic posed significant challenges for the development and testing of teleoperation systems. Travel restrictions necessitated remote collaboration, which Designated Driver and its partners successfully navigated by leveraging simulation and hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) testing. Engineers in Portland were able to remotely test and refine their systems using vehicles and simulators in Karlsruhe, Germany, ensuring robust development despite logistical constraints.

These experiences highlight important lessons for the AV industry, such as the necessity of effective communication, the right tools, and transparent processes. Overcoming challenges like porting to new processor architectures without direct hardware access has been particularly instructive.


In summary, Designated Driver’s teleoperation system represents a significant leap forward in the practical deployment of autonomous vehicles. By providing a reliable human backup, it not only enhances the safety and operational range of AVs but also addresses public concerns and creates new employment opportunities. This innovation is paving the way for a more autonomous, yet safely monitored, future on our roadways.