Two major players in the logistics industry are leading a group of companies investing millions in Phantom Auto, a rising Silicon Valley company that has developed software that enables remote operation of forklifts and other transportation of materials.
This will result in partnerships leading to the development and sale of thousands of remotely operated and autonomous forklifts.
ArcBest’s contribution is $25 million, according to the company.
The move comes as the supply chain and logistics industries continue to face labor shortages that predated the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Phantom Auto software allows forklifts to be operated remotely from virtually anywhere in the world with strong internet connectivity. Operators in offsite locations, including their homes, can steer multiple forklifts, making these jobs more convenient and attractive to potential hires.
The technology behind Phantom’s remote operation software is what Katz calls “hardware and network agnostic” which he says provides “secure, low-latency communication over volatile and constrained wireless networks, enabling broadcast reliable sensors and safe control of vehicle functions”.
Additionally, Phantom’s software aggregates all available networks from all available carriers such as AT&T
The pandemic has created problems. People are less inclined to work in person in tight spaces,” said Elliot Katz, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Phantom Auto in an interview. “The pandemic has taken the labor shortage that has existed in the logistics sector for decades and made it more acute.”
The ArcBest and NFI agreements differ in important ways.
ArcBest and Phantom Auto have previously worked together to combine ArcBest’s autonomous technology with that of Phantom Auto to create autonomous remote-controlled forklifts. The companies have now signed joint development and commercialization agreements under which they will sell thousands of remote-controlled autonomous forklifts to ArcBest’s external customers who number in the tens of thousands, which Katz called a “massive opportunity”. for his business.
“We were thinking about what our customers were facing in terms of their own supply chain issues related to labor shortages or labor displacement,” said Michael Newcity, director of ArcBest Innovation and President of ArcBest Technologies in an interview. “We wanted to co-develop technology that was very specific to customer use cases and we wanted to leverage this joint agreement and the joint marketing agreement to actually resell this technology. We had the impression that it required an investment. We believed in the solution.
Phantom’s Katz explained that while an autonomous forklift can perform many functions, some require the intervention of a remote human operator, such as loading and unloading trailers and placing pallets into racks at variable heights.
As part of the deal, Newcity will join Phantom’s board of directors.
“We are excited to have Michael join our Board of Directors, as he has decades of experience scaling technology in the logistics industry and understands that the autonomous future does not unfold without the humans in the loop,” Katz told Forbes.com.
The deal with NFI is simpler. The logistics company will simply purchase and deploy over 1,500 remote-controlled forklifts that do not include autonomous capability.
This new boon for Phantom will help fund a major expansion of the company, according to Katz.
“We will use the money to execute on key business commitments to select top-tier logistics customers by increasing headcount and adapting products and services,” Katz said.
Katz said the company plans to double its full-time workforce to about 75 over the next few years.
Indeed, Phantom has the wind in its sails.
Last July, the company announced that it had entered into an agreement with Tennessee-based third-party logistics company Kenco to provide remote-controlled forklifts to its customers. The move would not only help address its labor shortage, but also provide jobs for disabled veterans who otherwise could not physically drive the vehicles.
Among other companies working with Phantom Auto, delivery service Postmates uses Phantom’s technology to monitor and, if necessary, remotely operate its autonomous robots.
All of this makes Katz not only very excited about the success of the young company, but also about its contribution to solving a global problem, saying: “The work is essential to keep the supply chain operational, but to be on site in a crowded warehouse is not; warehouse workers can now also work remotely.