Auto Tech

Phantom Auto pioneers remote driving technology

When autonomous vehicles can't decide what to do, Phantom Auto can jump in and save the day.

Evan Miller/Roadshow

This week the California DMV passed regulations allowing the testing of autonomous vehicles without a "safety driver" behind the wheel, ready to take over if something goes wrong. The caveat: there must be a remote operator connected to the car. That's where Phantom Auto comes in.

The startup, based in Mountain View, California, has developed technology that incorporates a remote driver through through the cellular network, allowing control of the car from virtually anywhere. (It uses both AT&T and Verizon to mitigate possible loss of signal.) 

I was able to experience this firsthand this week, and I can tell you latency is imperceptible. When the remote driver turns the steering wheel, the wheel in the car turns at the same time.

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This technology should help autonomous vehicles overcome edge cases such as construction sites or extreme weather, both scenarios that can make an autonomous car stop in its tracks.

From inside the vehicle, the driving style is smooth -- inputs aren't jerky or rushed. That's because a human is essentially behind the wheel and the car behaved as such, crossing multiple lanes to make a left-hand turn and navigating the wild-west driving style of a crowded gas station.

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The inside is equipped with a large screen so passengers can see, and talk to, the remote operator.

Evan Miller/Roadshow

A remote operator drives the vehicle while sitting in front of five monitors with a wheel and pedal setup that looks like it was lifted directly out of an iRacing nerd's living room. 

But while the remote operator has extensive training and is fully insured, a few questions have yet to be answered. Will remote operators have to get an official license, for example, or will private training suffice? If the remote operator gets a moving infraction in their "real" car, does it affect their job as a remote driver?

Phantom Auto uses a Lincoln MKZ as its test vehicle. The Lincoln's complete drive-by-wire system of electric brakes, steering and transmission makes the remote take-over easy. Phantom Auto, however, is brand-neutral and claims its technology could work in any vehicle.

I would expect to see this remote operator technology show up first in ride-share companies, especially since both Uber and Lyft are developing autonomous technology. Is it weird? Yes. But it's definitely cool.