Screenshot: Phantom Auto (YouTube)

Every day, automakers and tech companies test self-driving cars on California roadways. Starting in April, remote-controlled autonomous cars could join them on public streets, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The cars would rely on a computerized system that has a remote human operator, Reuters reports, rather than the usual safety operator that sits behind the wheel of autonomous test cars.

New regulations being considered by the California department of motor vehicles would allow the remote-controlled vehicles to hit the streets.

Here’s more from Reuters:

The remote control technology, already used by NASA and the military, is seen as a way to more quickly usher in the commercial rollout of self-driving cars. The new regulations are expected to be approved later this month, and take effect in April after a month-long public notice period.

Companies like Nissan (7201.T), Waymo and startups Zoox, Phantom Auto and Starsky Robotics have been working on the technology, which allows for a remote operator to take control of a vehicle if the underlying autonomous system inside the car encounters problems, known in the industry as difficult-to-solve “edge” cases.


Indeed, Reuters frames this as a possible opportunity for self-driving car businesses to achieve profitability, as it would eliminate California’s requirement for safety operators to sit at the wheel during tests, ready to take control in case the autonomous technology fails.

One remote-controlled driving company, Phantom Auto, conducted some test runs at this year’s CES conference in Las Vegas.

Mark Harris, a writer for Spectrum IEEE, said the driving experience felt “very safe, if on the cautious side.” Connectivity problems could present a challenge to making the technology work, Harris explained.

Even so, network glitches and slowdowns are inevitable, and Phantom’s system is designed to degrade gracefully. If the bandwidth suddenly drops, the left and right screens will pixelate first. If all the high-speed LTE and 4G networks go down, Magzimof says Phantom can keep working on sluggish 3G, albeit with only low-quality video, steering, and brakes. If the worst should happen and the connection drops entirely, Phantom has developed a basic AI assist system that slows the vehicle to a stop and turns on emergency flashers.


Nonetheless, Phantom Auto’s co-founder, Elliot Katz, thinks tele-operated driving makes sense, because a human is being used as a failsafe. In his mind, that should put lawmakers with safety concerns about autonomous driving at ease.

Zoox, the secretive autonomous car startup, also said that remote-controlled operations will factor into the company’s business.

“When your model is to have autonomous vehicles deployed as a for-hire service in cities, you are still going to need a command center in that city that has a human-in-the-loop oversight of the fleet, both to deal with vehicles if they have an issue but also to deal with customers if they need help,” Zoox Chief Executive Officer Tim Kentley-Klay said at a Senate hearing last month.


The DMV’s regulations are expected to take effect as early as April.