Phantom Auto tests remote control for driverless cars
Phantom Auto’s system lets a human remotely take the wheel when a self-driving car can’t figure out its next move.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — In November, General Motors’ Cruise autonomous test vehicle attracted unintended media attention when it froze behind a taco truck during a press drive. Between traffic cones, double-parked cars and the lunch stand, the car’s computer could not figure out its next move.
That situation, and the snarky tweets that followed, is one Phantom Auto wants to help manufacturers avoid. The company says it can eliminate cases where a driverless vehicle may become confused or stuck by having a human take the wheel from a remote operations center.
“We’re offering safety,” Phantom CEO Shai Magzimof told Automotive News. “We want the experience to be smooth, clean, sharp. As companies struggle with the last step of getting to a stable, reliable autonomous vehicle, that’s where we come in.”
At CES in 2017, Nissan Motor Co. said it developed, in collaboration with NASA, a system known as Seamless Autonomous Mobility that calls on human help centers when self-driving cars encounter unforeseen situations.
However, Nissan’s system maps a solution to send to the car, which will execute it itself, while Phantom physically takes over the controls. To do so safely and consistently, the system needs to have low latency, or delays in the transfer of data.
Magzimof said the biggest obstacle when he began approaching self-driving engineers with his remote operations idea was “latency, latency, latency.” However, as a former engineer working on mobile networking for video games, he already had determined a way to find a strong, consistent connection.
Using a process called bonding, Phantom can switch and combine networks from carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint to maintain connections. Before deploying its service, the company maps the area of operation to determine which networks are strongest at every coordinate.
Magzimof said when the company began tests, the connection experienced frequent “hiccups,” causing a jerky ride. But the process eventually was refined enough that Phantom could operate vehicles in Las Vegas during its first demos at CES this year from its headquarters here.
The system is tested in a Phantom vehicle Photo credit: KATIE BURKE
During a test ride around Phantom’s Silicon Valley offices last week, the car was able to smoothly complete a drive around the block without any intervention on the driving controls in the car. And with a human behind the remote controls, the ride felt much more natural compared with the rigidly rule-following self-driving cars.
The demos have attracted industry attention, and the startup has a few major automotive customers, though Phantom said it could not yet disclose names.
Not every company is convinced of the need for human intervention. During a driverless ride demo in October, Waymo, Google’s self-driving affiliate, said it had a call center to help passengers, similar to GM’s OnStar, but it did not have the power to remotely drive the vehicle.
Phantom’s service is intended to add an extra layer of safety and convenience, however, it is not intended for high-speed emergency situations.
“Companies that can’t detect a traffic light or have issues on the highway don’t work with us; we’re not going to save them in real time,” Magzimof said. “We can’t get you the last 40 percent [of self-driving car deployment], but we can get you the last 2 percent.”