Cars Operated From 100 Miles Away Drive On Sacramento Roads

By Vicki Gonzalez, KCRA NBC TV-3, SACRAMENTO, CA

April 15, 2019


Sacramento is taking another step toward the world of autonomous vehicles.

The company Phantom Auto began pilot testing a remotely operated vehicle on city streets Monday. The vehicle is teleoperated in Mountain View, roughly 120 miles away.

Phantom Auto partnered with the city in August 2018. In the months since, it’s analyzed and mapped the street-level 4G network conditions for all cellular carriers on two routes selected by the city — one in downtown from City Hall to the State Capitol, and the other at Sacramento State to the 65th Street RT light rail station.

“The testing we have been doing is actually testing the network,” Phantom co-founder Eliot Katz said. “We are never just relying on just one network to teleoperate. We actually do network mapping to track the cellular activity of all the carriers, and then we use all the carriers in tandem for bonding.”

Katz said Phantom Auto’s software will allow a human operator to remotely drive from thousands of miles away. He envisions this first becoming an asset for delivery trucks before passenger vehicle use.

“The car stopped or slowed down when there was a pedestrian,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said. “It responded to all of the things a car — or a driver — would respond to, but without ever feeling like we were jerking or stopping suddenly.”

Phantom Auto is the latest in the city’s drive to attract autonomous vehicle companies away from Silicon Valley.

In February, the self-driving shuttle Olli debuted at Sacramento State, which followed Verizon selecting Sacramento as one of the first cities with 5G.

The goal is to grow the local economy beyond a government town. However, the innovation on public streets has criticism from the nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog.

“It’s all about the safety. One of the problems is it’s like putting a toddler in charge of brain surgery,” said Mike Mattoch with Consumer Watchdog. “It’s a nice theory but it’s like your cellphone use — it jams up, it locks. Your TV, your cable — whatever it is. These are machines.”

For now, a person will be behind the wheel as a backup to the teleoperator in Mountain View during pilot driving in Sacramento.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions as far as safety and I think we are doing it the appropriate way,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D- Sacramento.

The DMV currently has 62 active permit holders for autonomous testing with a safety driver.

Only one company has a permit for driverless testing. Waymo is authorized to conduct that testing in a portion of Santa Clara County.

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