Earlier this year, California’s department of motor vehicles rolled out a new set of regulations for companies that want to conduct driverless car tests on public roads. But despite the painstaking effort that went into crafting the regulations, the DMV says there is one company in the state that’s allowed to test cars without a driver at the wheel—and it has some safety advocates calling for action.
The technicality emerged last month, when the CEO of Phantom Auto—a startup working on so-called teleoperation systems, which allow a remote operator to control a car even several hundred miles away—announced it’s powering the “first driverless and empty cars” in California.
But Phantom Auto cautioned its cars don’t technically fit within the framework of California’s autonomous car regulations. Yes, it’s a driverless car—but it’s not an autonomous driverless car. It’s a confusing distinction that’s worth pointing out, especially in an industry known to often abuse important terminology.
“The only way that our cars can move even an inch is if a human is driving them,” said Elliot Katz, Phantom’s co-founder. “The human just isn’t sitting in the driver’s seat. They’re just in a remote location.” Katz stressed that Phantom’s chief priority is safety, as it stakes itself out as a way for autonomous tech developers to ensure their cars can safely function in the real world.
The California DMV agrees with Phantom’s position, based on a statement provided to Jalopnik by a spokesperson, who confirmed the company doesn’t have a testing permit for testing autonomous cars “with a driver or without.”
“Under California law, autonomous technology means technology that has the capability to drive the vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator,” the spokesperson said. (In that sense, Phantom really doesn’t need a permit at all.)
Nonetheless, safety advocates see it as a way for companies to evade the intense scrutiny otherwise placed on companies looking to test autonomous cars in the state.
“My view is that this is wildly unsafe, and it ought to be shut down immediately,” said John Simpson, director of safety advocate group Consumer Watchdog’s privacy and technology project.
Simpson said he understands that Phantom is ultimately aiming to provide a bridge for when autonomous cars can’t handle a complicated scenario. But he said the company’s technology “has not been perfected” and they’re testing “on public roadways.”
“If you’re going to test that technology which is a technology designed for a human to resume control remotely, the only way that you can safely test that is if you have a human in the car monitoring what the hell is going on,” Simpson said.
Founded in 2017, Phantom Auto describes itself as a sort of OnStar for autonomous car makers. The reality of self-driving cars is that it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, they’ll ever be able to handle every driving scenario.
“Autonomous technology has gotten to an incredible point,” Katz told Jalopnik. “I don’t know what number you want to use; I usually like to say it’s 98 percent of the way there. But that last two percent is a very difficult piece of the puzzle.”
“We would bridge that technological gap,” he added. (Indeed, teleoperation is something we’ve said before is a solid idea for the inevitable issues that autonomous cars run into.)
Here’s how it’d work: Say it’s the future and you’re traveling in a car with no steering wheel or pedals. Suddenly, the car runs into trouble—for instance, a construction zone with sloppy roads and workers near the lanes—so, it’d contact Phantom Auto’s call-center, and a remote operator could engage with the vehicle’s cameras and autonomous driving hardware to get a sense of what’s going on. Katz said the vehicle has to come to a complete stop before Phantom’s remote operator could take over the car.
The car’s speed is capped at 30 mph, Katz said, “because we’re just dealing with edge cases.”
“This isn’t a solution for driving the car 100 percent of the time,” he said, “this is for viewing very specific edge cases.”
Eventually remote operators may be assigned to several cars at once, but since the driving engagements will be limited in scope, it’s not as if they’ll be handling numerous cars at once, Katz stressed.
“Our remote operators are only operating the car with our teleoperation technology a very small percentage of the time,” he said. “Basically, for edge cases. When we’re doing that, it’s not just a 1:1 ratio, because, for instance, one of our remote operators could go an entire day or an entire week without actually doing anything for a single car. So the ratio is really dependent on the state of a customer’s autonomous technology.”
If a company wants to test driverless cars on public roads in California, the state’s regulations require they can be operated remotely if the vehicle runs into a confusing situation.
But not every system is like Phantom Auto’s. Vehicles operated by Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google, can request confirmation fro a remote human specialist if it runs into a complicated scenario, and once “receives confirmation of what it is sensing, the car—not the remote operator —then decides how to proceed,” as The New York Times put it.
“The Waymo approach ensures that latency—a delay in the communications traffic—doesn’t compromise the car’s driving behavior by leaving a remote operator unable to react in real time,” the Times said.
Phantom Auto’s cars use a 4G cell connection to link the car to the driver. Katz said the company uses a process called “bonding,” where it relies on all available cellular provider in tandem.
“We’re not just relying on Verizon,” Katz said. “We’re working simultaneously with Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile.” It has a record of GPS information that backs this up and helps establish the connection between remote driver and car.
In the rare chance the car loses its connection, Phantom Auto says it follows guidance set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have the vehicle stop outside the flow of traffic. The company is currently testing one vehicle in California.
Phantom’s technology includes just a set of four cameras, so without any autonomous technology, the car lacks the “active perception” necessary to slow down and merge outside of traffic, said Jordan Sanders, director of business and operations at Phantom Auto.
“For our current vehicle that’s on the road it comes to a safe stop in the lane of traffic,” Sanders said, if it happens to lose its connection.
That would ultimately change when Phantom’s technology is plugged into the autonomous driving hardware of some of its customers. Katz wouldn’t name customers, but said they’re currently working with five companies.
“We’re a turnkey teleoperation solution,” he said.
Katz recognized that it can be confusing for the layman to have a driverless car on the road that doesn’t have to abide by regulations set for driverless cars in California. As he put it, “We’re covered by regular driving laws.”
Given the amount of time the California DMV put into developing the autonomous driving regulations, it’s perhaps surprising the company failed to consider teleoperation—especially when it’s being considered as a failsafe technology to ensure autonomous cars operate without a hitch.
Illustrating California’s stringent standards, the DMV told Jalopnik that of the two companies that have applied for driverless testing permits, one received a letter from the agency on April 12, “explaining their application was not complete and the information needed to complete it.” The second application is currently being reviewed.
Katz said the company would be open to a set of regulations that focus solely on teleoperation
“We would welcome that with open arms,” he said. “For us, what we have right now is we have various laws and regulations around the world that say teleoperation is needed.”
There’s also apparently no concerns about the safety of the technology in cities that Phantom CEO Shai Magzimof said the company is currently testing driverless cars.
Mary Lynne Vellinga, communications director for Sacramento’s mayor, told Jalopnik, said that “as far as we know” the company currently isn’t driving on city streets. But the city is talking with Phantom Auto about possibly launching a driverless shuttle service, she said.
Colin Heyne, public information manager for the City of San Jose, left it to the state to decide whether teleoperated cars are regulated or not.
“As we understand it, Phantom Auto is not operating autonomous vehicles,” he said.
“There’s nothing prohibiting them from doing so,” he went on. “Certainly, in the city we don’t have anything in place that address remotely-operated vehicles.”
Heyne said the city hasn’t received any complaints about Phantom Auto yet, but in talking with the company, San Jose officials are confident the testing is safe. “Our number one priority at the department of transportation is that everything happening on our streets is done safely,” he said.
Nonetheless, until California provides some specific guidance for remote-controlled cars, safety advocates said the testing should be stopped. Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, asserted the regulation for driverless testing applies to Phantom Auto.
“A plain reading of the regulation shows that a physical driver is not required to be in the vehicle to meet the state’s definition of ‘autonomous test vehicle’,” he said. “California should shut this experiment down until Phantom can prove compliance.”
Katz said that, before Phantom Auto deployed its test car, the company touched base with lawmakers about whether there was a type of permit that fit its tests.
“We wanted everyone to be apprised of what we are doing, because we saw in various regs or laws, saying if autonomous vehicles are going to be deployed they should have remote operation,” he said.
Katz said that he understands the technology is different, so the company has been “very up front and transparent with regulators in the state.”
He welcomed any policymaker or safety advocate with concerns about the technology to test out its technology.
“We view ourselves as a safety layer for autonomous vehicles,” Katz said.