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With driverless cars running late, a startup tries remote-control trucks
FOR four days in February, Ben Shukman showed up to his office at Phantom Auto in Mountain View, California, sat down in front of a bank of computer screens with a steering wheel in a darkened room, and began driving.
As he turned the wheel in Silicon Valley, an empty truck 2,500 miles (40,233 km) away in Atlanta picked up semi trailers and towed them around a warehouse lot.
From seven states away, Mr Shukman, 25, backed trailers into loading docks and parking spaces. He said: "We were able to do some manoeuvers that were so difficult that there were truck drivers there that said that they could not do that."
Phantom Auto was founded in 2017 to help bridge the gap between the vision and the reality of autonomous vehicles.
It offers remote-driving - technology that provides human intervention for construction zones, bad weather, roadside emergencies or anything else that might fluster the artificial intelligence piloting a driverless car.
With Phantom Auto's software and a cellular connection, a trained human operator can take over a car and guide it through difficult spots.
Now the startup is announcing an expansion into logistics, providing remote operation capability for forklifts, delivery robots, and "yard truck" tractors that move trailers around warehouses and shipping centres.
Phantom Auto on Thursday said it has raised US$13.5 million in a round of financing lead by Bessemer Venture Partners. The company has raised roughly US$19 million to date.
Phantom Auto's new line of business shows just how deep the current moment of disillusionment has become for the self-driving car industry.
After years of development and more than US$10 billion in investment, autonomous vehicles still aren't ready for widespread public use.
Phantom Auto's original strategy was to fill gaps in robotaxi capabilities. But autonomous ride-hailing fleets have made little progress beyond testing and rarely operate without human safety drivers - sometimes working in pairs - sitting in the front.
Alphabet Inc's Waymo is offering limited ride-hailing service to a small number of customers in suburban Phoenix, usually with a safety driver on board to take over if the robot fails, as well as remote monitors who can intervene.
Virtually no other autonomous startup is ferrying passengers through traffic - and that means little demand for Phantom Auto's remote-driving technology. The startup decided to enter logistics as a way to survive in the meantime.
Yard trucks, forklifts and delivery vehicles offer a faster path to market because each operates at relatively low speeds, carries no passengers, and can be used without engaging with traffic on public roads. Co-founder Elliot Katz said his company is also looking at possibilities in construction and mining.
There is a strong appetite for automated and remote technology in these industries because professional operators can be hard to find and often don't live close to the job sites where they are needed.
Phantom's yard truck customers, according to Mr Katz, include retailers with dozens of distribution centres across the country. Using remote operation, the startup can potentially service all of them from a central location, with drivers bouncing instantly from Alabama to Ohio to Oregon as needed.
If Phantom Auto or its rivals can make this vision real, it will dramatically expand and reshape the labour pool for industrial-vehicle operators.
An early-stage venture fund within Google led a US$ 6 million investment last year in Scotty Labs, a remote-driving equipment startup. Volvo Construction Equipment recently announced tests of remote-controlled wheel loaders over a 5G cellular network in Sweden. BLOOMBERG