Munich Milos Nesic is sitting in his office, the big screen in front of him shows a parking lot. His office chair: a replica truck seat with steering wheel, pedals, gear levers. To the left of the emergency brake hangs a coffee mug at hand. On the right are several buttons. Milos Nesic pushes the one with the red T.
At the moment, his colleague Bernd Weißenböck receives a signal via mobile radio. He sits 30 kilometers away at the wheel of a real truck and looks at the real parking lot. He now knows that Nesic wants to take over. This is commented on again via headsets: “I request control,” says Nesic. Weißenböck unlocks the truck and says: “Confirmed”.
The man in the office is now driving the truck from Munich, the man in the truck in the small town of Petershausen can take his foot off the pedal. Today, it will mainly be scrapped back and forth – Weißenböck only sits in the cockpit to be able to intervene in an emergency.
The two trained professional drivers in the service of the Munich start-up Fernride are practicing for a job at VW. It is a reality test for what three graduates of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have come up with: Jean-Michael Georg and Maximilian Fisser spent years researching before they turned the idea of remote truck control into a business idea with company CEO Hendrik Kramer.
With a number of sensors, the truck detects the environment on the VW factory premises.
Over the next ten weeks, Fernride teleoperators are to steer their vehicle between other trucks, forklifts and pedestrians at Volkswagen and bring finished component parts from A to B at the plant.
One can also say: the truck drivers are practicing for the revolution. The so–called teleoperation is intended to change the logistics industry – and its teaching profession. Fernride could turn truck driving into an office job. And it could control more vehicles with fewer drivers, because – instead of waiting for cargo – they can move other vehicles. That would be a huge lever, not only because of the savings.
The logistics industry in Germany is suffering from a massive shortage of drivers. Currently, up to 80,000 professional drivers are missing, according to the Federal Association of Road Haulage Logistics and Disposal (BGL), which is almost ten percent of the positions. And the situation continues to worsen: 30,000 retirements per year would only be faced by about 17,000 career starters.
Where this can lead can be seen in England. Supermarket shelves were already empty there last year because freight forwarders could not find drivers. In October, BGL CEO Dirk Engelhardt warned against “going into a supply collapse even in Western Europe”.
Fernride and Volkswagen want to anticipate this and counteract the bottleneck already now. “With teleoperation, we would use a driver’s working time more efficiently because his waiting times until unloading are eliminated,” says VW spokeswoman Katrin Hohmann. These downtimes are relatively high for internal transports on the factory premises compared to long-distance transport.
The technology: antennas, cameras and colorful strips
The Fernride teleoperation system consists of three components: vehicle, network and the operator’s workstation, the so-called control station. For the vehicle type, Fernride uses an electric terminal tractor from the French manufacturer Gaussin, which you can upgrade with hardware and software components.
The LTE antennas are striking. “We are connected live to the control station in a six-fold redundant manner via the conventional mobile radio network,” says Andreas Kustermann, Teleoperations Manager at Fernride. The network is the central element of the technology. “It is very, very important that there are no interruptions.“
Eight cameras are installed on the truck so that teleoperators such as Milos Nesic can control the vehicle remotely. In the center of the screen, the teleoperator sees a 180-degree panorama, composed of the images of cameras in the front left, right and center of the cabin.
Experts among themselves
Former MAN CEO Holger Mandel (left) in conversation with Fernride CEO Hendrik Kramer.
Three shots of the close-up area from a bird’s eye view are arranged above it. So you can see road markings and curbs. In addition, two mirror cameras allow you to look into the blind spots. As with parking assistants in the car, colorful lines show where the vehicle will move when driving.
At the bottom left of the giant monitor, Nesic can also see the latency with which the videos are transmitted. “An image takes just 60 milliseconds to be captured, compressed, sent and displayed by the camera lens,” says Manager Kustermann. “This is relatively fast, blinking takes 200 to 300 milliseconds.“
The project: VW demands the highest standards in security and data protection
Fernride focuses on three use cases: factory premises, logistics centers, port facilities. According to the company’s surveys, these transports generate 5.4 billion euros in sales every year in Europe alone.
At VW in Wolfsburg, Fernride is to transport empty containers and component parts and finally take over morning and evening shifts continuously over four weeks. A safety driver stays in the vehicle all the time. Katrin Hohmann from Volkswagen says: “The aim is to check whether a teleoperator can perform the task as well as a driver who is physically sitting in the vehicle.“
For the Munich start-up, the pilot customer is a godsend. “For a customer like Volkswagen, it is particularly important to meet data protection, cybersecurity and security requirements,” says Fernride CEO Kramer. A factory site with 20,000 employees and many different road users is one of the most difficult scenarios. “If we meet the requirements of VW, we will also be compatible with every other customer.“
Meanwhile, the applications in logistics centers and at ports are being tested with DB Schenker and in Hamburg.
The expertise: Experienced logisticians support the management
Outwardly, the 27-year-old does not fit into the truck and logistics business, which is otherwise rather gray-haired men of advanced age among themselves. But with his expertise and deep understanding of the market, he amazes and convinces even seasoned logistics managers, investors and specialists. One of them is Holger Mandel, ex-CEO of the commercial vehicle manufacturer MAN. “When Hendrik Kramer first came to my office at MAN, I thought: Such a nutcase!“ he says and laughs. Today, he is invested with his own money, advises the company and opens further doors for Kramer.
Meanwhile, the 55-year-old sees many use cases for Fernride’s technology and considers it an important building block in the mobility of the future: “Teleoperated driving will help to establish autonomous driving in the market,” says Mandel. And it is also permanently needed: “Every vehicle that is moved needs manual intervention at some point.“
Other industry experts take on high management positions. Thomas Bock recently joined as Head of Operations. He has previously managed the business processes at Audi subsidiary AID, among others. In May, Martin Isik will start as the new Head of Commercial and Finance. He had previously been responsible for business development in autonomous driving at BMW.
So far, Fernride has raised ten million euros in venture capital. The investors also include Fly Ventures. Partner Gabriel Matuschka took a close look at the market for autonomous vehicles and Telefahren. From his point of view, the people of Munich are exciting: “Fernride can solve a problem very, very quickly by teleoperating on a factory site.“
Relief for truck drivers: family instead of a rest stop
Meanwhile, the logistics industry association BGL continues to focus on better working conditions for truck drivers in the traditional business in order to counteract the shortage of drivers. “We do not see the topic of automated driving as a starting point for alleviating the shortage of drivers in the short term,” says CEO Engelhardt. Too many questions about the reliability and usability of the new technologies are still open.
However, Milos Nesic will not convince anything so quickly to return to the old world. Before the Serb joined Fernride, he toured Europe as a long-distance driver.
He still remembers how he noticed the job advertisement “Teleoperator / safety driver” on his home vacation. The interview was scheduled for the next morning. “It was so special that I interrupted my vacation and drove 1300 kilometers to Munich.“
His motivation to do everything right in Wolfsburg is perhaps the strongest: “I don’t want to be a father who only sees his family on weekends.“ If truck driving becomes an office job, he doesn’t have to do it anymore.