Before the COVID pandemic put pressure on an already tight transportation and logistics industry, Phantom Auto’s remote control systems were seen as an interesting, non-essential piece of technology.
“It went from cool to have to have-to-have,” co-founder Elliot Katz told TechCrunch, adding that companies were especially keen to apply the remote driving technology to forklifts. As of 2020, forklift trucks are the “hottest” application of his system, Katz added.
Demand for the technology is not only increasing in forklifts, Katz says, but has also spread to other logistics and transportation-related areas, including off-road vehicles. Now Phantom Auto is fueled and ready to meet that demand with a new $25 million injection from private equity firm InfraBridge, as well as a deeper customer relationship with ConGlobal, a major rail terminal operator with a fleet of 700 yard trucks.
The startup has pre-funding of $500 million, according to known sources. Phantom Auto has raised $95 million to date.
Phantom Auto, which was founded in 2017 and today employs 120 people, developed a teleoperation platform that allowed a driver to control a vehicle remotely, sometimes thousands of miles away, if necessary. Initially, the company focused on applying the technology to autonomous vehicles on public roads, such as robotaxis and self-driving trucks. But the company’s executive team quickly realized that even with its technology, large-scale commercial deployment of self-driving vehicles on public roads would take decades, Katz said.
Today, the Phantom Auto remote driving system is used to operate vehicles such as forklifts and construction trucks that do not have autonomy.
In 2019, the company had focused on industries where its vehicle-independent technology had the best chance of widespread adoption. It landed on yard trucks, forklifts and delivery robots on the sidewalk. All of these vehicles operate at low speed and, with the exception of delivery robots, are located in enclosed areas. Today, the company has 17 commercial customer agreements, including with Kenco.
ConGlobal, owned by InfraBridge, started working with Phantom Auto in 2020 when the rail terminal operator adopted a training product developed by the startup. ConGlobal and other companies in the industry are struggling with constant turnover, and Phantom Auto’s remote driver training product has allowed the company to teach large groups of new employees how to operate construction trucks while maintaining social distancing – a requirement during the pandemic.
ConGlobal has since expanded that customer relationship and has just begun applying Phantom Auto technology directly to its off-road trucks. 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 is likely to grow even closer. As part of InfraBridge’s $25 million investment deal, ConGlobal CEO Brant Ring will join Phantom Auto’s board.