Adding a human touch to autonomous driving

Global Business

Many automakers said it’s inevitable that self-driving cars will soon play a major role in transportation. But challenges remain, including that final one-percent of situations where people just aren’t comfortable in fully autonomous mode.

Startup Phantom Auto is using a hi-tech human solution in hopes of creating the safest ride.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.

I’m going for a ride with the founders of Phantom Auto. A voice cries out from a dashboard screen, “Welcome everybody my name is Ben. I will be your remote driver for this drive.”

I ask, “Ben can control everything?”

“Yeah everything,” Shai Magzimof the founder and CEO of Phantom Auto said.  “The gear, turn signals, I mean whatever he needs to drive.” 

Elliot Katz, Phantom Auto’s Chief Strategy Officer adds, “Ben can see virtually 360 degrees around the car. So actually he has a much better range of vision than a human driver sitting in the driver’s seat.”

Ben, our driver, is back at Phantom Auto’s Silicon Valley headquarters, sitting in what looks like a video game setup.

In fact, the company’s CEO also founded a social gaming company.

“I was sitting in a gaming racing car with a VR headset,” recalls Magzimof. “I felt like I’m driving a real car.  There’s no difference here. I’m looking right and looking left. I see the world.  Then, I was like what If you could do this for the autonomous system?”

Industry people loved the idea of remote control as a backup for self-driving cars, but also thought Shai was crazy for thinking he could drive over a cellular network.

On our drive, I told the team, “You lose the internet for almost anything, it’s not that big of a deal. I lose it here, am I going to crash into another car?”

“Imagine if you were walking down the street and you had Verizon as your cell phone service and your phone was smart enough to realize Verizon is about to drop, so I should switch over to Sprint,” said Katz.

Phantom Auto bonds multiple cell networks at the same time. Through Artificial intelligence it predicts when to jump to the best ones.

In the event of a complete cellular outage, A.I. also knows to stop the car and signal for help.

I didn’t notice any delays in control on my ride. But with self-driving vehicles on the horizon, why reintroduce people at the wheel?

Magzimof said there are still to many situations self-driving cars can’t handle—when to creep slowly into traffic, when to break the rules or understand emergency situations like the one we encounter — a road worker not clearly indicating what’s going on.

It’s no secret that the autonomous driving industry could put thousands and perhaps millions of people out of work.

But Phantom Auto claims they could actually bring some of those jobs back. 

Their idea is to build actual control centers where professional drivers will actually man the backup controls.

So far, the farthest Phantom has remotely controlled a car is between Silicon Valley and Las Vegas, which is roughly 800 kilometers.

The company plans to test whether its control center can reach across an ocean – all the way from Silicon Valley to Israel – in the belief that passengers around the world will feel most comfortable in a self-driving car when there’s still a human touch.

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