DMV to give driverless cars the green light

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Saturday, February 24, 2018
DMV to give driverless cars the green light
You've probably seen them around the Bay Area: cars covered in cameras and sensors that are the test vehicles for the autonomous cars of the future.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- You've probably seen them around the Bay Area: cars covered in cameras and sensors that are the test vehicles for the autonomous cars of the future.

But in a little over a month, you could start to see something else: those same vehicles, with no one behind the wheel. The California DMV is expecting to receive state approval on new rules that would let autonomous car companies take the human safety driver out of the driver's seat, and also apply for permits to take passengers.

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"When there's no driver behind the steering wheel, the regulations do say there needs to be a remote operator," DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez said. "So this is really the next step forward."

Gonzalez said after a 30-day public posting period, companies could begin receiving permits on April 2 to operate with no one in the driver's seat -- as long as they use a remote control technology like the one made by Phantom Auto in Mountain View.

"We can remotely drive a vehicle," explained Phantom co-founder Elliott Katz. "In the event something goes wrong, we don't have to fully trust the machine just yet."

Katz estimates self-driving cars get it right 98 percent of the time. But sometimes, they get confused.

"The car will know when it needs help a lot of times, if it's stuck at a construction site and it's paralyzed and cannot move, then it would know to ping us," he said.

Phantom Auto uses an array of three forward-facing cameras and one facing to the rear. A bevy of antennas stream the images back to a console where a driver with a steering wheel, gear shift and pedals sits ready to take over. Right now, Katz said Phantom operates with a ratio of about one driver per five vehicles. As artificial intelligence improves, he estimates that ratio could change to one remote driver per 20 vehicles.

"The remote operator ... can see virtually 360 degrees around the car," Katz said. "So unless you're Beetlejuice, obviously you can't turn your head 360 degrees, so they can see more."

Emme Hall, a reviews editor for Roadshow by CNET, said this will be the first real test of how humans respond to robotic cars in the wild.

"The vehicle is still being driven by a human, it's just being driven a little farther away, right?" she said.

That means remote drivers can still look for the usual eye contact and hand signals from pedestrians and other drivers -- but won't be able to signal back in return.

"A lot of people aren't going to know that there's a human driver backup, so (there) might be a little bit of panic in the streets, we'll have to see," Hall said.

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Phantom's technology operates over public cellular networks -- all of them at once. "Bonding" multiple connections together to improve speed and reliability is a technique TV broadcasters have used to stream video since the early 2000's, but Phantom has a unique challenge: it has to keep the delay down to almost nothing.

"If you press on the brake, for instance, and it takes 6 seconds, it could be a potentially fatal outcome," Katz said.

But when it comes to the pedal on the right, the question is different: What happens when a remote driver develops a lead foot and gets pulled over?

"Your guess is as good as mine," Hall said. "We'll have to see!"