Autonomous vehicles—cars and trucks that drive themselves—are the future, and Pittsburgh is an undisputed leader in that technological field.
As if to prove the point, a dramatic step toward that future— “teleoperated” cars remotely driven by a person miles away—are on the roads today at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Tech firm Mapless AI is testing two such vehicles on roadways and passenger curbs as the airport’s xBridge innovation program’s latest partner.
In its nearly three years of existence, the xBridge has tested UV-enhanced robot scrubbers, air filtration monitoring systems, algae-powered “living technology” to reduce CO2 levels and more to the airport, breaking new ground for the industry.
“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.
“Mapless AI’s technology and service can have an immense impact on a number of fleet and mobility industries, and we are excited to explore how it can enhance the airport experience.”
The latest pilot comes from Mapless co-founders Jeffrey Kane Johnson and Philipp Robbel, who have developed safety technology that can turn any regular vehicle into a remote-controlled transport in minutes.
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.
Mapless calls it “car-hailing,” and the possibilities are transformative for transportation networks Johnson said.
“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 Robbel and Johnson are experts in autonomous vehicle safety engineering, with experience leading teams at tech giants Apple, Bosch and Uber.
The technology is specifically 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.
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 that they can assure total safety in reaction to changing network conditions.”
By now, Pittsburgh residents are used to seeing autonomous vehicles (or AVs) that are outfitted with numerous sensors and even radar dishes, as the city became a testing ground for Uber in 2016 and has since welcomed operations for AV companies like Argo AI and Aurora.
But Mapless’ equipment is minimal in comparison, using 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.
“As a Pittsburgh resident, this partnership is really special for me,” Johnson said. “To be able to do this work, to push the boundaries of mobility innovation, right here at home is incredible.”
“From all standpoints, Pittsburgh Airport is the perfect testing ground for Mapless,” Robbel added. “Beyond showcasing our new car-hailing service and technology, we can test new mobility solutions in practical airport settings and collect real user feedback.”
Car-hailing is only one possible use of the tech, according to Mapless, which was started in 2020 and has operations in Pittsburgh and Boston.
Imagine landing at the airport and, rather than finding the desk for a rental agency and waiting in line and then wandering a parking lot looking for your vehicle, you simply walk out to a designated curb where a car is already waiting for you.
And if you work at that rental agency, rather than employees parking returned vehicles and then running back to the curb for the next one and the one after that, a single remote operator connects to each car as it arrives and parks them, one after the other.