The maps, sensors and intelligence that autonomous car companies have built into these vehicles still can't deal with the occasional chaos of real life, like when road crews block lanes and send workers out to direct traffic by hand.
Another tricky task might be crossing several jammed lanes of traffic to get into a left-turn lane.
The state of California knows this, so when it starts allowing driverless cars beginning April 2, they'll have to be prepared to hand the reins to a human driver who can control the car from a distance.
Phantom Auto says it's ready. The Mountain View, Calif., startup has developed remote driving as a service for ride-hailing companies and other operators of autonomous cars. When a vehicle finds itself at a loss for what to do next, it will alert a driver in a Phantom call center who can take in live video of the situation and control the car until it's ready to go autonomous again.
Standard cellular networks tether the car to the call center. That only works if you can overcome cellular latency so that the car goes, turns and stops when the driver wants it to. Phantom says it's the only company that's solved the latency problem.
Would-be operators of driverless cars, such as Waymo and Uber, will need something like it soon, if they don't already. Regulatory filings in California, the biggest state for self-driving car testing, have reported thousands of instances per year when cars' autonomous systems disengaged. Those include software failures, emergencies when the car was about to be in a collision, and unexpected, non-emergency edge cases.
Phantom's service is designed for edge cases at speeds under 25mph. It can't suddenly loop in a remote driver if a mattress falls off a truck and a driverless car has to swerve at 70mph, Co-Founder Elliot Katz said. For cases like that, some autonomous cars are designed to go into a fallback mode, such as coming to a stop as safely as possible.
Fallback mode is likely to be the answer for a while, according to Gartner analyst Andy Castonguay. "What you end up with is a strong need for constant learning," he said. There is one advantage built into driverless cars: They react faster than humans, Castonguay said.
In the edge cases it was designed for, Phantom can connect a remote driver to a car so seamlessly that it's like being there in real time, Katz said. The driver sits in front of a bank of screens that show live video from four cameras mounted on the vehicle, three in front and one in back. Because the cameras are on the outside of the car, the driver's view isn't blocked by blind spots like the car's pillars. Most self-driving cars already have cameras that will work, Katz said. At the call center, one driver can be on call for several cars at once.
Phantom can also set up an audio link so the remote driver can talk with passengers or with police on the scene if necessary. (A way to communicate with law enforcement is one of California's requirements.)
The main breakthrough that makes all this possible involves the cellular connection, Phantom says. Co-Founder and CEO Shai Magzimof had developed a system to improve wireless connections for video games and came up with the idea of adapting it to remote driving, Phantom spokesman Scott Fosgard said.
Phantom's software lets a car take advantage of multiple mobile carrier networks to make sure it has the lowest possible latency at all times, Fosgard said. It can switch from one carrier to another, depending on performance, or even use more than one carrier at a time, he said.
The company has remotely driven cars in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sacramento and Las Vegas. Before each test, Phantom engineers drive through the city to map out carriers' coverage, Fosgard said. Soon they'll start mapping San Francisco.
The company hasn't announced tests or mapping in the Phoenix area, where several companies are testing or operating autonomous cars. It also hasn't named any of its customers. Asked if they have a system or a partner for remote driving, Uber said it has a team working on it and Waymo did not respond before this story was filed.
Phantom's low-latency cellular solution is out on the cutting edge of technology, Gartner's Castonguay said. Mobile modules that can use multiple carriers are starting to emerge and may have a big impact for cars and the Internet of Things, Castonguay said, but he's not aware of any cars coming standard with that kind of gear. Phantom says most cars, especially autonomous vehicles, are equipped with all the hardware it needs for remote operation.
— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.