Estonian car rental firm Elmo is rolling-out a first-of-its-kind remotely guided car rental service.
The cars are e-vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf (pictured), and the new service will lead to efficiency gains and less harm to the environment, as well as being a ground-breaking development, Elmo says.
The authorities in Estonia are also gearing up for the service.
Enn Laansoo Jr., Elmo Rent founder and CEO told ERR: "If we are talking about remote-controlled tech already on public roads and available to the public as service, then Elmo is the first to do this worldwide."
Laansoo said that when a customer finishes their trip, they can simply leave the vehicle in a permissible location which is convenient for them.
Unlike with existing short-term car rental apps, however, the next customer does not need to seek out the parked car's location; they will be able to order it to a site which suits them.
The vehicle will be remotely "driven" to that place by trained operators.
Since the tech is new, an Elmo staff member will sit in the remote-guided car, as safety measure, Laansoo said; a safety driver akin to a driving instructor sitting alongside a student or novice driver, and only intervening when necessary.
Once risks have been mitigated and the tech has matured, the human companion will no longer be needed.
Laansoo said: "We don't have enough experience to traverse the streets yet, but if we train new remote drivers, we can't provide the necessary experience in the field.
"Our logic is that in every new city we enter, in foreign markets, we will use safety drivers for at least the first three months of service," he went on, adding that any issues or interruptions in the signal between operator and vehicle, of more than around a second in duration, and the car will stop immediately.
Elmo's remote control center currently employs seven drivers who connect remotely with a car and give it commands.
These are transmitted through two different communications providers, as an extra safety measure.
Estonia's Transport Board (Transpordiamet) granted Elmo permission to operate in this way in August, moving to the unstaffed service after three to six months' with a human operator in the vehicle, which, Laansoo said, would be enough to iron out development issues.
"In recent years, there have been more and more ride-share services operating on the streets, while the number of cars available for short rents has rise, in line with rising demand," Laansoo went on.
"However, competitors solve this by placing a vehicle on every street corner, waiting for customers. But this is not resource-efficient and environmentally-friendly way of doing things."
In the event of an accident, the person "driving" the vehicle remotely is treated for insurance and legal purposes as the driver, meaning Elmo tracks who is in control of a vehicle at any given time.
Transport Board technical department chief Jürgo Vahtre told ERR's "Vikerhommik" radio show that: "We are preparing the technical spec for remote-controlled vehicles, wherein these systems will be outlined."
"In order for the vehicles to be able to navigate their way round, in the future, under normal circumstances, they must meet these requirements," Vahtre continued.
The remote driver will not simply be using a smartphone app – but rather a videogame-like set up with a 360-degree camera, and a console featuring a steering wheel and brake/accelerator/clutch pedals, as in a real car.
The biggest problem with a remote-controlled vehicle is any delay in signal between operator and vehicle.
"We have limited this maximum, because if the delay becomes large, it is not possible to drive safely," Vahtre added. "It is important to get rid of these delays, so all communication systems are duplicated in remotely controlled vehicles."
The Elmo cars also have emergency braking systems, he noted.
The principle has already been tried out, when Estonian robotics firm Clevon tested its remote controlled vehicles in Viljandi, using the same system.
A safety vehicle initially provided is now no longer needed, Vahtre said.
Elmo aims to expand outside Estonia, while Laansoo says the company and its product has already received plenty of interest.
While at present the lead time from the customer placing the order to the car reaching them is around an hour, this will be reduced.
Remote drivers will also gain in their skills; the experience is somewhat different from driving on the roads, Laansoo added.
Ultimately the service will see more customers served per vehicle, leading to a more efficient use of resources and lest wastefulness and pollution.
As reported by ERR News, Clevon has started trialing its delivery robot vehicles on the roads of a small town in Belgium; this tech uses the same remote driver set-up as Elmo intends to use.
Editor: Andrew Whyte