Before the COVID pandemic put pressure on an already squeezed transportation and logistics industry, Phantom Auto’s remote driving systems were viewed as an interesting, not essential, piece of technology.
“It went from a cool to have, to have-to-have,” co-founder Elliot Katz told TechCrunch, adding that companies were particularly keen to apply the remote driving technology to forklifts. Since 2020, forklifts have been the “hottest” application of its system, Katz added.
Demand for the technology is not only scaling in forklifts, Katz contends, it has spread to other logistics and transportation-related fields, including yard trucks. Now Phantom Auto is fueled and ready to tap into that demand with a fresh injection of $25 million from private equity firm InfraBridge, as well as a deepening customer relationship with ConGlobal, a major rail terminal operator with a fleet of 700 yard trucks.
The startup has a pre-funding valuation of $500 million, according to sources familiar. Phantom Auto has raised $95 million to date.
Phantom Auto, which was founded in 2017 and employs 120 people today, developed a teleoperation platform that allows a remote driver, sometimes located thousands of miles away, to take control of an autonomous vehicle if needed. The platform, which uses public cellular networks, isn’t designed to take over in a split second in hopes of avoiding an accident. Instead, it’s used as a safety backup to take control of the vehicle if it encounters a difficult scenario and gets confused, or is even involved in an accident.
Initially, the company was focused on applying the technology to autonomous vehicles on public roadways such as robotaxis and self-driving trucks. But the company’s executive team quickly realized that even with its technology, large-scale commercial deployments of driverless vehicles on public roads was decades away, Katz said.
By 2019, the company had turned to sectors where its vehicle-agnostic technology had the most promise of being widely used. It landed on yard trucks, fork lifts and sidewalk delivery bots. All of these vehicles operate at low speed and, with the exception of delivery bots, are in confined environments. Today, the company has 17 customer commercial agreements, including with Kenco.
ConGlobal, which is owned by InfraBridge, started working with Phantom Auto in 2020 when the rail terminal operator started using a training product developed by the startup. ConGlobal and other companies in the sector grapple with constant turnover and Phantom Auto’s distance driver training product allowed the company to teach large groups of new hires how to operate yard trucks while maintaining social distance — a requirement during the pandemic.
ConGlobal has since expanded that customer relationship and is just starting to apply Phantom Auto’s technology directly to its yard truck operations. The system requires trucks with a drive-by-wire system, which manufacturer Terberg supplies. Phantom Auto’s yard truck program with ConGlobal will expand as Terberg delivers these drive-by-wire trucks.
And that relationship with Phantom Auto will likely grow even closer. As part of the $25 million investment agreement from InfraBridge, ConGlobal CEO Brant Ring will join the Phantom Auto board.