Until today, I had never driven a golf cart. Now I have. True, all I did was scoot around a parking lot, zigging and zagging to avoid a few safety cones. But it was still a memorable experience: The cart was in a parking lot at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and I was sitting at a PC at Ford’s new Silicon Valley Research Center in Palo Alto, California, which celebrated its formal grand opening today.
What I was experiencing was a drone-like technology which Ford calls remote repositioning. It’s the brainchild of Mike Tinskey, the company’s director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure, and one of 25 “Smart Mobility” experiments which Ford CEO Mark Fields announced at CES earlier this month.
I drove using a steering wheel and pedal connected to the PC; three large LCD screens streamed live video from cameras mounted on the cart, showing me more or less what I would have seen if I were in the driver’s seat. And it worked. I didn’t knock over any cones, and once I got the hang of it, the whole process felt surprisingly natural.
Ford doesn’t have any immediate plans to commercialize remote repositioning, but it’s not an idle diversion, either. The concept stemmed from the company’s acknowledgement that more and more people are relying on car-sharing services of various sorts rather than buying their own wheels. One problem with car sharing is that the cars often don’t end up in the ideal location, which led Ford to wonder whether it might be possible for a remote driver to efficiently reposition vehicles from one central location. Tinskey’s project is an early stab at developing the necessary tech.
Tinskey also told me that parking lots and garages might provide another application for the tech: Virtual valets could use it to park cars without having to enter them.
For now, it’s all just a nifty lab project. Tinskey and his colleagues have been able to make it work using off-the-shelf equipment, including a bunch of gear from Logitech–webcams on the golf cart, and a steering wheel and pedals, designed for racing games, at the remote location.
The 4G connectivity isn’t anything special either. I used a normal Verizon wireless connection in Palo Alto, and the cart was on AT&T. That meant that it was subject to the same latency issues as any other devices on these networks. (Tinskey told me that the video stream sometimes gets bogged down when classes let out in Atlanta.) In my test drive, it was slow enough that we shut off the side displays to improve the frame rate. Still, the fact that it worked at all was more impressive than if Ford had relied on some proprietary high-bandwidth network to make the connection.
Starting small with remote repositioning and seeing where it might lead is the whole idea, says Ken Washington, Ford’s VP of Research and Innovation. “That’s the Silicon Valley way. That’s why we’re here.”
Here’s Ford’s own video about the technology: