Postmates tapped Phantom Auto, a Silicon Valley developer of remote-control and communications tech for self-driving vehicles, to be a long-distance babysitter for its sidewalk delivery robots to help ensure burritos, salads, and sushi rolls don’t get stuck on the way to hungry customers.
The on-demand delivery company that’s prepping for an IPO has integrated Phantom’s software into low-speed, bug-eyed Serve robots being deployed in Los Angeles and tested in its home San Francisco market. Phantom’s tech enables remote operation and guidance—or teleoperation—and high-fidelity monitoring via a low-latency mobile communications system the startup designed. The yellow and black shopping-cart size robots also use guidance software developed by Postmates engineers and laser lidar sensors, sonar and cameras to see surroundings in the same way self-driving cars do.
“Their software allows us to monitor and if necessary drive the robots remotely,” Ali Kashani, Postmates’ vice president of special projects, tells Forbes. “We always look for partners that are pushing the envelope in a key area, like telescopes, and in this case Phantom can help us improve Serve’s safety and reliability and help us get to more people, more neighborhoods, cover more areas.”
Phantom, which has raised $19 million since emerging from stealth mode in 2018, isn’t sharing financial details of its arrangement with Postmates. The Mountain View, California-based startup also generates revenue for its remote guidance system and communications services from transportation companies that co-founder and chief strategy officer Elliot Katz declined to identify. Phantom’s technology was developed by its 28-year-old CEO and cofounder Shai Magzimof to act as a backstop for autonomous vehicles when they get into tricky situations and need guidance or even remote driving assistance.
When that happens, a remote technician seated at a multiscreen Phantom console, with video game-style driving controls, can assess the situation via the vehicle’s cameras over a cellular network connection and drive it out of the jam, albeit at relatively low speed. For the Serve project, “Postmates Pilots” will be monitoring the robots at Postmates X units in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Self-driving robotaxis aren’t quite ready for duty on city streets, however, and Phantom’s capabilities also fit well with Postmates’ robots, which may need help occasionally to navigate sidewalk obstacles like abandoned e-scooters or when they cross busy urban intersections. States that have approved the use of delivery robots on public sidewalks are also requiring monitoring services like Phantom’s. The Serve program is starting out, but will expand to over 100 robots in 2020, primarily in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Kashani says.
“This is a watershed moment for the mobility space, proving that autonomy combined with teleoperation can get autonomous vehicles commercially deployed today,” Magzimof said.
Companies including self-driving truck startup Starsky Robotics, Nissan and robotaxi developer Zoox are also incorporating teleoperations into their vehicles. Alphabet’s Waymo, the biggest player in self-driving tech, has a remote monitoring system for its fleet as well, though its technicians mainly provide guidance and course planning rather than actual driving.
Delivery robots operating on the sidewalk also an advantage over self-driving cars and trucks in that many states already allow their commercial use, Kashani says.
“I think we might be sort of ahead of the car industry in terms of regulation, and it makes sense from a safety point of view,” he says. “Cars are two-ton machines that are moving at 50 miles an hour making millisecond decisions that are very consequential from a risk point of view. They can’t really stop and think and ask for help. On a sidewalk, you can stop any time and ask that remote operator who is always monitoring. You’re only moving at 3 miles an hour and weigh 100 pounds or so.”