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Tech start-up tries remote-control trucks

Ira Boudway
Bloomberg News
With Phantom Auto’s software and a cellular connection, a trained human operator can take over a car and guide it through difficult spots.

For four days in February, Ben Shukman showed up to his office at Phantom Auto in Mountain View, California, sat down in front of a bank of computer screens with a steering wheel in a darkened room, and began driving. As the 25-year-old turned the wheel in Silicon Valley, an empty truck 2,500 miles away in Atlanta picked up semi trailers and towed them around a warehouse lot.

From seven states away, Shukman backed trailers into loading docks and parking spaces.

“We were able to do some maneuvers that were so difficult that there were truck drivers there that said that they could not do that,” he said.

Phantom Auto was founded in 2017 to help bridge the gap between the vision and the reality of autonomous vehicles. It offers remote-driving technology that provides human intervention for construction zones, bad weather, roadside emergencies or anything else that might fluster the artificial intelligence piloting a driverless car.

With Phantom Auto’s software and a cellular connection, a trained human operator can take over a car and guide it through difficult spots.

Now the startup is announcing an expansion into logistics, providing remote operation capability for forklifts, delivery robots and “yard truck” tractors that move trailers around warehouses and shipping centers. The company has raised roughly $19 million to date.

Phantom Auto’s new line of business shows just how deep the current moment of disillusionment has become for the self-driving car industry. After years of development and more than $10 billion in investment, autonomous vehicles still aren’t ready for widespread public use. Phantom Auto’s original strategy was to fill gaps in robotaxi capabilities. But autonomous ride-hailing fleets have made little progress beyond testing and rarely operate without human safety drivers — sometimes working in pairs — sitting in the front seat.

Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo is offering limited ride-hailing service to a small number of customers in suburban Phoenix, usually with a safety driver on board to take over if the robot fails as well as remote monitors who can intervene. Virtually no other autonomous startup is ferrying passengers through traffic, and that means little demand for Phantom Auto’s remote-driving technology.

Phantom Auto says it has agreements to sell its technology to large automakers, so that faraway backup drivers can troubleshoot autonomous fleets once they hit the road.

“We’ve talked to literally every major player in the space, and given the nature of what we do, we have to have pretty detailed discussions about their limitations, their capabilities, and their actual rollout dates,” said co-founder Elliot Katz. “Everyone who says they’re deploying, whatever they say they’re deploying in the near term, it’s completely false.”

The startup decided to enter logistics as a way to survive in the meantime. Even the stopgap provider in the self-driving industry needed a stopgap strategy.

Yard trucks, forklifts and delivery vehicles offer a faster path to market because each operates at relatively low speeds, carry no passengers, and can be used without engaging with traffic on public roads. Katz said his company is also looking at possibilities in construction and mining. There is a strong appetite for automated and remote technology in these industries because professional operators can be hard to find and often don’t live close to the job sites where they are needed.

If Phantom Auto — or its rivals — can make this vision real, it will dramatically expand and reshape the labor pool for industrial-vehicle operators.