Transportation

What’s it like to ride in a remote-operated car? Phantom Auto shows it’s smooth and spooky

See what’s it like to ride in a remote-operated car

With a vehicle being remotely controlled all the way from its Silicon Valley headquarters, Phantom Auto took to the downtown streets and the Sacramento State campus this week to give test rides to media members and key stakeholders.
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With a vehicle being remotely controlled all the way from its Silicon Valley headquarters, Phantom Auto took to the downtown streets and the Sacramento State campus this week to give test rides to media members and key stakeholders.

A black sedan emblazoned with the words “Phantom Auto” rolled through a Sacramento State parking lot Tuesday, and at first glance it looked like the driver was a little too relaxed.

His seat all was the way reclined as he pulled up to a small crowd waiting for a test ride.

No problem. He wasn’t really driving.

For a service named after a specter, a ride in a Phantom-operated vehicle isn’t particularly scary – even as the person in the driver’s seat goes minutes without touching the wheel.

With the vehicle being remotely controlled all the way from its Silicon Valley headquarters, the company took to downtown streets and the Sacramento State campus this week to give test rides to media members and stakeholders.

It’s not an autonomous vehicle, co-founder Elliot Katz points out, but it’s a system his company is implementing to be used as a backup as self-driving cars become a reality. Under current law, any company testing driverless vehicles on public roads needs to have a remote operator.

Test “driver” Jordan Sanders was in the driver’s seat as another form of backup during a Tuesday afternoon cruise through part of Sacramento State’s busy campus roads. But he didn’t put need to put his hands on the wheel once during the test drive.

While Sanders sat relaxed in a black Lincoln MKZ hybrid in Sacramento, a guy named Ben took over the steering wheel, gas and brake from Phantom’s headquarters in Mountain View after briefly introducing himself over speakerphone.

An array of black cameras and microphones mounted to the vehicle’s roof rack gave Ben all the information he needed to control the car in real time from 100 miles away.

Ben listened via live video and audio feed, taking control of the Lincoln using an interface Katz said has a steering wheel and pedals with the same feel as a real car. Ben was looking at a wall of monitors that gives him a wider view at the car’s surroundings than a regular driver could have.

The drive felt smooth and natural as Ben navigated through scores of student commuters, bicyclists, pedestrians and multiple roundabouts near the university’s J Street entrance.

Making the drive smooth, natural and safe is no easy feat, Katz said. In order for the video streaming process to be fast and seamless enough to allow for real-time remote driving, the internet connection needs to have as little lag as possible.

“That’s really the core of what we do, kind of our secret sauce, is having this very, very low-latency, high-bandwith connection and the ability to always remain connected,” Katz said. “We do that through bonding multiple cellular networks together.”

As Phantom Auto continues to develop, though, the person in the driver’s seat still has the power to override and take control if something goes awry.

Phantom is appropriately named; at a glance, it looks like the car’s being steered by a ghost.

“It is incredible,” said Sanders, the company’s director of business and operations. “It’s funny – for me, sometimes I forget to appreciate how cool it is.”

Katz said California’s capital city is the perfect location for test operations for Phantom, as the battle continues to persuade lawmakers and the general public to accept autonomous vehicles as the future. Katz noted humans are “terrible drivers,” crashing millions of times a year in the U.S.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg took a ride in a Phantom-controlled car Monday as it hit downtown city streets, the other part of town that’s been mapped to support remote operations.

“@TheCityofSac is on the cutting edge of autonomous and clean mobility technology that will create jobs and combat climate change,” Steinberg tweeted.

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.


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