Jeffrey Kane Johnson, cofounder of Mapless AI. Photo by Beth Hollerich

Traveling is stressful, and anyone who has flown out of Pittsburgh International Airport knows it is a long walk from the long-term parking lots to the terminal. 

But there may be a solution — a remote-controlled autonomous vehicle.

It is part of a new partnership with tech firm Mapless AI and the Allegheny County Airport Authority’s xBridge program, which brings early-stage tech companies to the region to conduct testing at the airport. 

Philipp Robbel and Jeffrey Kane Johnson worked together at Bosch in California where that company was testing automated driving nearly a decade ago. In early 2020, they left their jobs and founded Mapless AI. 

Mapless was initially focused on next-gen vehicle safety technology. Now, the company is also working on remote operation — which brings them to Pittsburgh International Airport. 

“Airports very quickly became a very attractive partner for us because they are a nexus of mobility and have a lot of possibilities for this kind of technology,” Johnson says. 

Airports include almost every industry in the world, says Cole Wolfson, director of xBridge. The hustle and complexity of airports require food service, logistics, cargo operations, and so on. 

Mapless’s car-hailing service is currently being tested by preapproved employees and contractors at the airport. They can park their cars in long-term parking, hail a car through a web app, and Mapless pilots the car to them. The user then drives the car to the terminal, leaving Mapless to return the vehicle via remote control. 

“It’s essentially a curbside, self-driven service,” says Johnson, whose background is in computer science and robotics. After getting his doctorate from Indiana University, Bloomington, he became interested in vehicle motion and behavior planning.

Robbel received a doctorate in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has focused on multi-robot planning such as drone teams. 

Jeffrey Kane Johnson, cofounder of Mapless AI, is testing the remote-controlled cars at Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo by Beth Hollerich.

Robbel says the Mapless team wanted to focus on an application of autonomous vehicles that could be ready to use in the near future. 

“It’s not just that we offer pure teleoperation where we slap on some cameras onto the vehicle and then rely on the network connection,” Robbel says. “There’s enough intelligence on the car, that it will be able to detect anything from pedestrians or other objects on the road and stop itself.”

Philipps says that while full autonomy is possible, it will be extremely complicated to bring to the general public. Many large companies such as Ford, Volkswagen and the former Strip District-based Argo AI have paused their developments, citing challenges in solving unusual events that, for now, only a human knows how to solve.

Fully-autonomous systems, Phillips says, require massive overhead costs, upfront work and training. By comparison, Mapless hires and contracts remote operators who complete a training program. Over the next year of testing, a safety driver will remain in the vehicle. Phillips says a call center is possible in the future.

“Our ambition is to be able to go anywhere, anytime,” Phillips says. “And I think, in order to do that in an effective and near-term way, having a human in the loop is the right way to do it.”

Wolfson says Pittsburgh is the perfect place for testing technology. xBridge started in 2019 and has since tested UV-enhanced robot scrubbers, air filtration monitoring systems and algae-powered living technology to reduce CO2 levels in the airport. There are even preparations being considered for air taxis.

“The amazing thing about Pittsburgh is we have this huge ecosystem of early-stage companies that are bringing amazing new products and services to market,” Wolfson says. “One of the things they need are partners that can give them a real-world testing environment in which they can develop and test their technology and introduce it to market.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.