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 4,000km away in Atlanta, Georgia, 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. With its software and a cellular connection, a trained human operator can take over a car and guide it through difficult spots.
The start-up has announced an expansion into logistics, providing remote operation capability for forklifts, delivery robots, and “yard truck” tractors that move trailers around warehouses and shipping centers.
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 US$10 billion in investment, autonomous vehicles still are not ready for widespread public use.
Phantom Auto’s original strategy was to fill gaps in “robotaxi” capabilities.
However, 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, Arizona, 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 start-up is ferrying passengers through traffic — and that means little demand for Phantom Auto’s remote-driving technology.
The start-up said 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,” cofounder Elliot Katz said. “Everyone who says they’re deploying, whatever they say they’re deploying in the near term, it’s completely false.”
The start-up decided to enter logistics as a way to survive in the meantime.
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 do not live close to the job sites where they are needed.
Phantom’s yard truck customers include retailers with dozens of distribution centers across the US, Katz said.
If Phantom Auto or its rivals can make this vision real, it would dramatically expand and reshape the labor pool for industrial-vehicle operators.
An early-stage venture fund within Google led a US$6 million investment last year in Scotty Labs, a remote-driving equipment start-up.
Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) announced tests of remote-controlled (RC) wheel loaders over a 5G cellular network in Sweden.
“There’s a deficit of talent available in our industry,” said Scott Young, Volvo CE’s vice president for customer support in the Americas. “This is how we bring the work to the talent pool.”
The legions of young people who play online video games are already learning to work on teams remotely, suggesting that the heavy equipment operator of the future could be more gamer than teamster, Young said.
Since joining Phantom two years ago, Shukman has helped test and develop its remote driving consoles.
Most of the other remote drivers at Phantom started out as safety drivers at autonomous car developers. Phantom puts all of them through a training protocol that takes about two weeks and requires passing a series of tasks, such as remotely navigating a slalom course.
Shukman had not been inside of an actual yard truck until three months ago when Terberg Group BV, the Dutch manufacturer working with Phantom to put remote-driving systems into its trucks, delivered one to California for retrofitting.
He spent a day doing drills and maneuvers in the real truck before moving back inside to practice on the remote console. It took him about two weeks before he felt comfortable.
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