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This service wants to operate cars with remote control when self-driving tech gets confused

  • Phantom Auto is a start-up that hopes to assist self-driving cars in tricky scenarios by using remote control.
  • Autonomous cars can get confused in areas like a construction site or if a driveway is blocked.
  • Typically in these cases, the car will slow to a crawl or stop until a safety driver re-engages and takes control of the vehicle.

One day after Uber suspended its autonomous-drive test programs on public roads following a fatal accident in Arizona, Toyota Motor suspended tests of driverless cars on public streets in the U.S.

"Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads," said Brian Lyons of Toyota Motor North America.

As the National Transportation Safety Board investigates why a 49-year-old woman was hit and killed by an Uber test vehicle while in autonomous mode, the accident is raising questions about the safety of self-driving vehicles.

For all the talk about self-driving cars being on the cusp of giving passengers rides every day, there's one fact few want to discuss: Autonomous-drive cars get confused and don't always work.

"We know the last stretch here gets really hard," said Scott Corwin, managing director and future of mobility leader for Deloitte.

Tricky scenarios such as a construction site or a blocked driveway can befuddle sensors and computers in self-driving cars. As a result, the self-driving cars slow to a crawl or stop until a safety driver re-engages and takes control of the car to steer it through the situation.

But what happens when autonomous-drive cars have no safety driver? What are passengers supposed to do?

Interior of Phantom Auto.
Meghan Reeder | CNBC
Interior of Phantom Auto.

Phantom Auto, a start-up in Mountain View, California, believes it has the answer. The company provides telepresence for autonomous-drive cars allowing a human to engage and operate the vehicle via remote control.

"We believe that AV technology has gotten to an incredible point. I'd say 98-99 percent there, but for that last 1 or 2 percent you do need a human in the loop. We are that human, albeit a human sitting a long distance away," said Elliot Katz, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Phantom Auto.

While the company has facilities in Israel and Russia, it does most of its research and development out of a small, nondescript office in Mountain View. Inside are six cockpits with a steering wheel, brake and acceleration pedals and multiple screens so remote operators see what a driver in the car would see.

Ben Shukman is one of the Phantom Auto employees in remote control of a test car that took me for a ride.

"Hi Phil, this is Ben. I will be your remote operator today," was the way Shukman greeted me when I slid into the back seat.

Once Ben started driving the car, it felt like any other ride in a vehicle, with one significant exception: The car was being driven by a person who was not in the front street. When Ben turned the wheel at his cockpit inside Phantom Auto headquarters, the steering wheel in my car turned at the same time. When he speeded up or slowed down, the car did the same thing with no perceptible lag time.

Phantom Auto driving down a street.
Meghan Reeder | CNBC
Phantom Auto driving down a street.

"In an autonomous vehicle you need that channel to be fast, someone to be there in real time," Shai Magzimof, co-founder and CEO of Phantom Auto, said as he stood in the company's control center with remote operators. "Real drivers with the right experience, the right training with us monitoring your ride as a consumer in an autonomous vehicle."

Phantom Auto envisions a future with numerous call centers throughout the world providing telepresence for scores of autonomous-drive vehicles. How soon that may happen is hard to predict.

When it does, Shukman may be the driver controlling your car remotely.