Why Self-Driving Car Companies Are Eyeing This Remote Driving Startup
Six months ago, remote driving startup Phantom Auto was just a fleck in a crowded sea of companies vying for visibility—and customers—in the nascent autonomous vehicle industry.
Today, it’s on the verge of landing deals with automakers, tech companies, and ride-hailing services all racing to deploy autonomous vehicles for public use.
Phantom Auto, fresh from announcing deals with three European firms, is now engaged in discussions with a variety of other companies interested in its teleoperation platform as a way to provide an extra layer of safety, including ride-hailing companies Uber and China’s Didi Chuxing, according to sources aware of the talks.
Phantom Auto told Fortune it doesn’t comment about discussions with potential customers. Uber says it regularly speaks with automakers and other potential partners. The company doesn’t have an update on its plans to partner with any other company on remote assistance.
Big companies taking an interest in a tiny startup is hardly unique in the autonomous vehicle industry, where multi-million acquisitions have become standard fare. What is notable is that so many companies are at least considering using an additional safety backup—in this case Phantom Auto’s tech—once human test drivers are pulled from its autonomous vehicles.
Phantom Auto, which was founded in 2017, has developed a teleoperation platform that enables a remote driver to take control of an autonomous vehicle if needed. For example, a remote driver sitting in a room hundreds of miles away could take over for a self-driving car that encounters an unusual traffic hazard, inclement weather, or road construction. To be clear, the system is not designed to take over in a split second in hopes of avoiding an accident. Instead, it’s meant as a safety backup to take control of the vehicle if it encounters a difficult scenario and gets confused, or is even involved in an accident.
Teleoperation isn’t new. However, there has been skepticism over whether a vehicle could be teleoperated from hundreds of miles away using 4G cellular networks without experiencing latency—the delay that can occur as data is transferred from one end of a wireless connection to another.
Latency is inconvenient for a consumer trying to video chat with a friend on their smartphone. It’s dangerous if it occurs while teleoperating a vehicle. But Phantom Auto contends it has solved the latency problem by figuring out how to use a number of wireless networks simultaneously. The company also takes other steps to ensure the transmission of data isn’t interrupted, including mapping the area in advance to understand the strength of each network signal where the vehicle would be remote operated. If the entire connection drops, despite these precautions, the system is designed to safely stop the vehicle and engage emergency flashers.
Interest in Phantom Auto’s teleoperation-as-a-service platform kicked off in January when the company conducted its first public demonstrations on the streets of Las Vegas during CES, the massive annual tech trade show. Fortune was among those who rode in Phantom Auto’s Lincoln MKZ has a remote operator back in Mountain View, Calif. safely steered the vehicle on city streets.
But other events have prompted companies to take a closer look at Phantom Auto’s tech such as the fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving car and the recently announced partnerships with public transportation giant Transdev, Swedish startup Einride, and National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS), formerly Saab Automobiles.
The fatal Uber self-driving car accident in March involving an Uber self-driving vehicle not only caused the ride-hailing company to halt all of its testing on public roads, it spurred other companies to take a closer look at their own testing and evaluate how to beef up safety once human safety drivers were removed from inside the vehicle.
A month later, California updated its regulations to allow companies to test autonomous vehicles without a human safety driver as long as it has a remote operator who is monitoring from afar.
That doesn’t mean every company must have a teleoperations feature like Phantom Auto’s platform, noted co-founder and chief strategy officer Elliot Katz.
The rules only require that companies have someone who monitors and can communicate with the vehicle as well as passengers. The remote operator uses “path planning” or remote guidance if the vehicle encounters a problem.
Path planning, which is used by leading autonomous vehicle companies such as Waymo and GM’s Cruise, allows two-way communication between the car and remote operator. If a vehicle gets into trouble, the human operator can plot out suggested a path to help the self-driving car navigate around the obstacle or through a road construction area. The vehicle will only proceed if it thinks the path is clear.
It’s times like these, when the vehicle refuses to move, that a teleoperation platform is a handy complementary feature to what companies already use, said Katz, who added Phantom Auto’s teleoperation platform can also be the primary backup, replacing path planning.