With a Human Backup, Phantom Auto Can Pilot Autonomous Vehicles Remotely

With a Human Backup, Phantom Auto Can Pilot Autonomous Vehicles Remotely

Author: Eric Walz   

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., — At CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, many top automakers and tech companies were in attendance to demonstrate their latest advancements in autonomous driving and the future of mobility. Among them was Silicon Valley-based startup Phantom Auto. During CES, Phantom offered attendees rides in a test vehicle being operated by a person remotely — from hundreds of miles away in California.

Phantom Auto, founded in 2017, is working on a unique solution to address the anxiety of being a occupant in a self-driving car without a human in the driver's seat — by providing a human backup driver who is able to control the vehicle from miles away using a remote console, if needed.

FutureCar visited Phantom Auto's Silicon Valley office and met with Jordan Sanders, who serves as the company's director of business and operations, and Elliot Katz, one of the co-founders of Phantom and head of business, legal, and policy. They offered me a demonstration of the company's technology in a demo car, a Lincoln MKZ on the public streets in Mountain View, California and the technology was impressive.

Inside Phantom's office is a setup that looks like it is made for competitive gaming rather than autonomous cars. There were multiple control stations complete with a driver's seat, steering wheel, pedals, each with a triple monitor setup, which mirrors the road ahead with the view captured by roof mounted cameras on Phantom's test vehicle.


Vehicle operator stations at Phantom Auto's Silicon Valley office

The test vehicle looks like an ordinary Lincoln MKZ, except for the four cameras mounted on the roof, and the company's logo plastered on the exterior. The camera setup allows a remote operator to see what a human driver would see — in real-time. The three front cameras provide an unobstructed view in front of the vehicle to the remote operator, while another rear facing camera is used to view behind the vehicle.

On the Road

Phantom's remote operator stayed behind at the office, where he was able to safely pilot our test car from the parking lot, onto the street into suburban California traffic. The remote operator can control the vehicle's steering, braking, acceleration, and even activate the turn signals with no apparent latency.

As a front seat passenger, the test ride felt ordinary until glancing over at the steering wheel and watching it move by itself, while the car gently accelerated and braked without input from anyone inside of the vehicle.


On the display, Phantom's remote operator can be seen controlling the vehicle   

Although Sanders was sitting behind the wheel, he did not need to intervene with the remotely controlled operation during our test ride.

All autonomous testing on the roads in California requires a autonomous vehicle test permit. The law currently states that a human operator must be behind the wheel at all times while on the public streets. However, Phantom does not require the state permit since technically its car is not fully autonomous — so the law does not apply.

So far, around 50 companies were granted the testing permit by the California DMV. As development progresses the laws are expected to be modified, to allow autonomous cars on the road with no human operator at all.

Unexpected Events Can Disrupt an Autonomous Trip

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) use high-definition maps to guide them along. Suppose something unexpected was to block an AVs path. The on-board autonomous software or machine learning algorithms may not be able to assess the situation and plan a new path around the object — leaving the AV stuck in limbo. This is one of the problems that Phantom is hoping to solve with its remote technology.

Using Phantom's remote control capabilities, a person can monitor an autonomous car from virtually anywhere. Using some type of alert system for instance, an operator can take back control of an AV in the event of a route change, or safety hazard that a autonomous vehicle's software may not be able to handle right now. For example, Phantom's technology can be used in construction zones, to safety steer the vehicle around traffic cones, or a blocked lane ahead, returning control back to the autonomous system after passing by the area.

Additionally, the rear mounted camera can be used to check for any emergency vehicle approaching from behind. In this scenario, a human can use Phantom's platform to pull over an autonomous vehicle to let any emergency vehicle safely pass.

Another industry concern is the possibility of hacking and taking control of an AV vehicle remotely. I asked Katz about this concern. He said that the company is working with multiple cyber-security firms to makes sure the entire platform stack is safe from hackers, including the in-vehicle hardware, the 5G communications channel, as well as the operations of the control center.

Public Acceptance of Self-Driving Cars

Phantom plans to help mitigate the reservations people may have riding in autonomous vehicles without a human driver. A recent Reuters poll in the U.S. showed that nearly two thirds of Americans would not feel comfortable in a self-driving car, something that might hold the industry back.

Among those skeptical of driverless cars was California resident Phoebe Barron. "I don't want to be the first guinea pig," she said in an interview at the time. Her response is a common one to the question of "Would you feel comfortable in a autonomous car with no driver?"  

"You have to ride in a self-driving vehicle to see it's something that's amazing."

According to Katz, "One of the reasons that they (the public) are very nervous about this technology, is that you're putting all of your faith into a machine." He added, "One of the biggest barriers right now is public acceptance. Just the idea that a human is in the loop, we think that we can help on that front."

Sanders agrees, but feels the public will eventually warm up to the idea of riding in a autonomous car. "You have to ride in a self-driving vehicle to see it's something that's amazing." he said.

Phantom is working with undisclosed automotive partners to implement its technology, and said they would make an official announcement soon. One possible area is commercial ‘robo-taxi' fleets, that may require remote assistance in unexpected situations.

While having some reservations about this new technology is understandable, the automotive industry is hedging its bet that the general public will eventually grow to accept and feel comfortable, as well as safe, in a fully autonomous vehicle.

Until that time, Phantom Auto is gearing up to fulfill this need and give autonomous vehicle passengers the piece of mind that someone is watching out for them. This piece of mind may be just what the public needs to fully embrace self-driving technology and help move the nascent industry forward.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is an automotive and technology reporter specializing in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over fifteen years of automotive experience and a B.A. in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the automotive industry and beyond. He has worked on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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