That’s no Menace, That’s the Phantom
Phantom Auto’s remote driver technology aims to keep AVs safe

The Phantom Auto driverless test car on I Street in Sacramento.

April 16, 2019: Curious passers-by in downtown Sacramento yesterday could be forgiven for wondering why TV crews were clustered around an ordinary looking black Lincoln sedan. Sure, Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg was in the passenger seat but the most innovative feature of the car was nowhere to be seen: it was a remote driver sitting in their office in Mountain View, 120 miles away. 

The Phantom Auto test drive was the end-cap to months of mapping and testing the 4G mobile network in Sacramento to make sure an autonomous vehicle could be safely driven by a remote operator. California law requires any company testing autonomous vehicles on public roads to have a human driver overseeing the “driverless” vehicle who can take over control when an AV encounters a scenario it can’t safely handle on its own, such as emergency road closures, construction detours and four-way stop intersections. 

That has generally meant a human inside the vehicle but Phantom Auto’s teleoperation system means the remote driver could be thousands of miles away. The catch is that the cellular network needs to be very robust, as the system depends on data from the car being sent to the remote operator and back in less than a second. 

Now that Phantom Auto’s remote driver system has been cleared for use in Sacramento, the door is open for other AV companies who may want to test their technology on the streets of Sacramento. As Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz said yesterday, “in our industry, word has spread that the city is very open to innovation. You can [come to Sacramento] and have those [regulatory] conversations and do your testing at the same time.” 

From the perspective of the City of Sacramento, which shares SACOG’s goal of establishing the region as a test-bed for new technology, backing a test of the technology that underpins the safety of AVs made sense as the city looks to cement its test-bed reputation.  

“We thought it actually was a good way to include the general public in the conversation. No, there isn’t a driver behind the wheel, but there is somebody who has control of the car,” said Louis Stewart, Sacramento’s chief innovation officer.  

SACOG supported the Phantom Auto pilot project with a mini-grant of $10,000. “We hope that our early investments in making our region a test-bed for innovation multiply,” said SACOG’s general counsel Kirk Trost yesterday. “Our proximity to both the Northern California tech hubs and state decision-makers and regulators, along with a forward-thinking City and robust regional support, makes our region the ideal place to test new ideas.” 

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