Autonomous car companies hitting the gas as Waymo files for driverless permit

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The world of self-driving cars could be getting ready to step on the gas pedal again -- after a major setback that had the whole industry riding the brakes. (KGO-TV)

The world of self-driving cars could be getting ready to step on the gas pedal again -- after a major setback that had the whole industry riding the brakes.

"Suddenly, there was this crash -- and all these questions came up about, 'Wait, should we allow this stuff to move so fast? Should we trust it so quickly?'" said CNET News executive editor Ian Sherr.

RELATED: Autonomous car makers riding the brakes on California driverless test permits

The crash that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, was a setback for Uber, and had other companies in the autonomous vehicle race slowing down their plans -- at least publicly. But now, Uber's archrival Waymo is taking the next step: applying for permits to test its cars in Mountain View with no driver in the driver's seat.

"We're seeing the tech industry do what it always does, which is push forward as much as they can," Sherr said.

California requires a remote operator for driverless testing -- someone who can take over at a moment's notice.

"We're there for that 1-2 percent, right? Where it's very severe weather, when you're at a construction site," said Elliott Katz, co-founder of Phantom Auto.

RELATED: Video shows deadly crash with self-driving Uber vehicle

Phantom Auto makes remote driving technology that autonomous vehicle companies can purchase to help them comply with the state's requirement. California lets companies choose how they'll implement remote operators -- and Katz says Waymo, which is part of Google's parent company Alphabet, appears to be taking an indirect approach: its systems let an operator give instructions to the autonomous vehicle, and watch as it carries them out.

Phantom's system is fundamentally different: it has drivers operating the vehicle in real time from consoles that include a steering wheel, pedals and a gear shift. Katz says the technology is already rolling out to customers.

"It's very possible you might see a car with no one in it," Sherr said. "And that's gonna be a little weird. Because I don't think I've seen that happen too often outside of an amusement park."

But Katz says knowing there's a human watching -- even invisibly -- should give bicyclists and pedestrians some peace of mind.

RELATED: DMV letter says Uber suspending self-driving car tests in CA

"They can see if someone is giving them a hand signal, in the same way as you can see in your car today," he said.

Since the Tempe crash, questions have been swirling around Uber's safety driver, who appeared to be looking down before the fatal crash, and not watching the road. Katz said he believes remotely supervising autonomous cars reduces the risk of distraction.

"They're sitting in an office building, right? There's managers overseeing what they're doing," he said.

But Sherr points out remote driving brings up its own challenges.

RELATED: CNET executive editor discusses push for self-driving cars

"How is the internet connection gonna be wirelessly? How much can we trust it? I get dropped calls on my cell phone still."

Phantom uses all four major cellular networks at once, for speed and redundancy, Katz said -- and also makes its own maps. While autonomous driving typically requires those maps to include traffic signals, turn lanes and crosswalks, Phantom's maps include something else: cell towers.

"If there is a complete dead area where you can't get any of the cellular networks, we know that in advance -- and we know we cannot drive in that area," he said.

Sherr said he fully expects his 2-year-old son won't need or want a driver's license by the time he's 16.

"It's gonna be interesting," he said. "But you know what? The future is weird."
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