Sacramentans Could One Day Travel in Autonomous Cars That Use Backup Drivers Operating from Miles Away

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SACRAMENTO -- A tech company that has created a human driver backup system for autonomous vehicles demonstrated its wares at Sacramento State on Tuesday.

Engineering faculty and university officials were especially eager to ride in a test vehicle equipped with cameras, microphones and remote operation gear that allows a person in Silicon Valley to drive through campus to a nearby light rail station.

A company called Phantom Auto is partnering with Sacramento City officials to map out cell phone reception along routes that autonomous buses and shuttles might use. Phantom Auto’s system uses cell phones to transmit video and audio to allow the human driver to take controls in situations that give autonomous vehicles trouble, such as the light rail station, which connects with numerous regional transit buses.

"Because of all the interactions between humans, vehicles, bikers, skateboarders, you name it,” said Phantom Auto founder Elliot Katz.

Remote driver Ben Sukman negotiated the light rail station and its pedestrians. He also drove through a construction lane closure, which can stymie autonomous vehicles.

Those are the situations when the human backup can take control and then revert back to autonomous mode when the traffic patterns return to normal.

"We’re building a system that allows you to have more visibility than if you were inside of the car," Sukman said through a speaker in the car from his Mountain View control center.

He said he does not get the sensation of a car accelerating, braking or turning, but back up drivers are trained to use visual sensors to allow for safe operation of the vehicle.

Several autonomous vehicle companies are looking at the system to reassure people who might otherwise use driverless modes of transit.

Katz says 40,000 people in the U.S. are killed in vehicle accidents, with most of them caused by human error. It's reason enough to create a backup system that will ease the concerns of riders.

"As long as cars have existed, all we’ve known is that humans are supposed to drive them and now we’re doing a complete 180. We’re saying humans shouldn’t drive at all," Katz said.

He said people will take great comfort in knowing if something goes wrong with autonomous vehicles that a human can back them up.

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