A new car rental service has launched in the UK that aims to deliver vehicles directly to customers without a driver inside. Instead of relying on autonomous driving technology, Fetch — a service launched by British startup Imperium Drive — remotely pilots its fleet of electric cars from the comfort of the company’s head office, providing a ‘driverless vehicle’ experience with the added safety of technically still having a human driver in control.
At the moment, however, vehicles are being delivered with a “safety driver” sitting behind the wheel who can take control of the car if necessary. Fetch hopes to go fully remote after 18 months of demonstrated success.
Fetch claims its driverless system has driven over 1,000 miles without a collision
“It’s driverless but not autonomous — yet,” said Koosha Kaveh, chief executive of Imperium Drive, in comments published by The BBC. “There’s still a human involved, but they’re sitting in a control center piloting the vehicle in the same way you would a drone.” Imperium Drive has made its Fetch system available to the public following 18 months of testing around Milton Keynes, UK, where the company claims it’s successfully driven for over 1,000 miles without a single collision.
Customers can order a car rental via the Fetch app, which is available to download now from the App Store and Google Play. The vehicle will then be remotely piloted to the customers’ location, from which point they’ll take the wheel and drive the car just like a typical rental. Once the rental period is up, a remote operator can take control of the vehicle and drive it to the next customer or return it to its base to charge.
The drivers remotely operating the hired cars have a 360-degree view of the roads using a combination of cameras built into the vehicle, and computer-vision algorithms that can detect anything nearby. The setup resembles that used by gamers who specialize in racing simulators, featuring a cockpit-like gaming chair, four monitor displays, and driving peripherals like a steering wheel.
Fetch currently only has four cars in its fleet, operating within a four-mile radius of central Milton Keynes. Other regional hubs are expected to follow, with Kaveh informing Top Gear that the service will be expanded to nearby locations like Luton (which hosts one the UK’s busiest airports) and Northampton “in the short term.”
The game-like aspect of an operator remotely piloting the vehicle already has some experts concerned. “While this scheme has been tested very successfully over an 18-month period, we worry that the experience of remotely driving a vehicle distances the driver from the potential road safety consequences in a video game-like manner,” said Simon Williams, a road safety spokesperson for the RAC, in a statement published by The Engineer. “Although the remote driver has a reasonable view in front and around them by not being present in the vehicle they are – like it or not – somewhat disconnected from the reality of actually being behind the wheel.”
Imperium Drive claims that Fetch is the world’s first driverless car rental service, though it should be noted that driverless robotaxi services have been in trials in cities around the world. A few weeks ago Uber also announced a partnership with Waymo that will bring autonomous robotaxis to Phoenix, Arizona later this year.