Hello, Halo: This Car-Share Service Remotely Drives Its Vehicles to You
Summon a Halo vehicle and a ‘remote pilot’ sitting in front of a 39-inch curved monitor at a nearby office will direct the car to you using the contraption’s steering wheel and pedals.
By Rob Pegoraro
LAS VEGAS—I used my phone to summon a car this week, but the Kia Niro that met me at the Downtown Container Park here featured a few differences from an everyday Uber or Lyft: A trio of puck-shaped antennas on the top, tiny cameras mounted around its exterior, and Nevada autonomous-vehicle license plates.
But this battery-electric vehicle operated by Halo did not rate as a robotaxi either. I’d have to do the driving—and the car did not drive itself to me either. Instead, it had a remote driver sitting in front of a giant monitor at Halo’s offices, plus a human up front as a safety check during this startup’s beta-test operations.
A better comparison is not autonomous-vehicle operators like GM’s Cruise or Alphabet’s Waymo but car-sharing services such as the now-defunct car2go. With Halo, however, you don’t have to walk, bike, or take transit to a shared car because the car comes to you.
HaloPilot technology, developed with T-Mobile as part of that carrier’s efforts to jump-start 5G development, fuses inputs from cameras and other sensors to provide a 210-degree view for its “remote pilot” on a 39-inch curved monitor while operating a steering wheel and pedals.
Halo launched service in late July with two cars in a trapezoid-shaped “service area” consisting of downtown Vegas and some surrounding neighborhoods. Would-be drivers can put their names on a waitlist, but the company provided a code to skip that while I was in town for the MWC Las Vegas wireless-industry gathering.
Creating an account had seemed too simple. I only had to provide my full name, birth date, email address, and phone number, with authentication handled by one-time, texted codes. But requesting a car via Halo’s web app kicked off the full onboarding process.
I had to grant the app access to my phone’s camera to take photos of both sides of my driver’s license and then briefly scan my face (Halo outsources this facial-recognition authentication to San Francisco-based Berbix) and then provide my car insurance policy number and expiration date. I would have rather done these chores when signing up indoors instead of standing up in almost 100-degree heat.
Halo charges $20 an hour, discounted to $10 for now, for a minimum rental of four hours—longer than I needed for this test—plus a $150 deposit. I hit a further hiccup when I forgot to provide my ZIP code after Chrome auto-filled my credit-card data; the site responded with an error message written in web-developer jargon that said nothing about the missing data point.
Hitching a Ride With a Halo Helper
But then my semi-autonomous ride arrived within the 15-minute delivery window, with founder and CEO Anand Nandakumar serving as the “Halo Helper” safety human, accompanied by Chief Strategy Officer Cass Mao.
They gave me a quick explanation of its features, noting that the three pods on the roof are cellular antennas—one each for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, a multiple-redundancy design. Nandakumar then let me watch the remote pilot drive the vehicle, slowly and carefully, for a few blocks as he kept his hands off the wheel.
Then he yielded the driver’s seat to me (in a normal rental, the helper would then exit the car and make their own way back to Halo HQ), and I drove this electric vehicle to Halo’s offices. That part seemed no different from any other car-sharing experience, except that I had the service’s CEO riding shotgun.
In a conversation at Halo’s offices in a small office park across the street from a junkyard, Nandakumar emphasized that this company has limited its launch to ensure that the HaloPilot system doesn’t face dense traffic or high speeds.
“We don’t want to touch the Strip,” he said. (After more than two decades of business travel to Vegas, I can confirm that this is good traffic-avoidance advice.)
“We target surface streets where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour,” he said. “We don’t touch the freeway at all.”
Nandakumar didn’t say how many people had booked rentals, but that number must be small given the tiny size of Halo’s fleet.
The company plans to ramp up in the coming weeks, with plans to have 20 cars operational by the end of the year. The company will also need to hire more remote drivers than the four on staff; Nandakumar said the company is targeting Uber and Lyft drivers who are tired of sharing their own vehicles with strangers.
The end of the year is also when Halo aims to switch to fully remote-driven car delivery and pick-up, Mao said in email. She added that this doesn’t require government approval: “In Nevada, we are able to make the call ourselves.”
Both said Halo is still considering pricing terms, with possible longer-term options that would better fit such use cases as day or overnight trips to nearby natural parks.
And then it was time for me to get back to the conference. I hopped into the same Niro I’d rented, this time with one of Halo’s remote drivers in the passenger seat, made the short drive back to downtown Vegas, parked, and tapped a button in the web app to end my rental.
It presented me with a ride-end checklist like what I remember from car2go rentals in Washington and Austin—the most important item being, “Take all of your stuff.”
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.