CES 2018, last year’s massive tech show in Las Vegas, played host to the debut of Lyft’s self-driving car. Powered by autonomous car startup Aptiv, the car was available to eager riders who waited hours to experience a robot-controlled drive.
Jump ahead a year, and self-driving Lyfts ordered through the ride-hailing app are a fairly typical part of Las Vegas life. Brightly labeled cars from other companies let everyone know the rides are autonomous. Heads still turn to see the futuristic vehicles in action, but the gawking is slowing down.
Supportive regulation and mild weather in Sin City make it an appealing place to test the robo-cars, much like the Phoenix metro area, where Google’s Waymo has set up shop.
As more public road-testing happens, the carnival-like appeal of self-driving cars wanes. The rides and sightings are more commonplace in hubs around the U.S., like the San Francisco Bay Area, Las Vegas, Phoenix, parts of Texas, Michigan, Boston, and even Ohio. Sure, not many people have actually taken the vehicles for a spin, but awareness is growing. A self-driving vehicle isn’t such a foreign concept anymore.
In the past three days I rode in four different self-driving vehicles down the Las Vegas Strip and it was hard to distinguish the different rides. As Aptiv’s Lee Bauer, VP of the company’s mobility architecture group, explained, “We’re now tuning the car.” So instead of mind-blowing experiences, it’s about smoother turns, less jarring braking, and quicker lane changes.
Aptiv’s been in Vegas for three years. The radar, LiDAR, and camera decked-out BMW 540 I rode in was part of the Lyft-Aptiv showcase at CES last year. The biggest change Bauer highlighted was the human driver-like ability to slowly inch forward to indicate intent. It’s more realistic – you don’t even realize it, but that’s a behavior drivers do all the time. That’s where we’re at: Improving the autonomous experience, not just making a car drive on its own.
The next day I took a Lyft from the Mandalay Bay. Lyft is helping normalize self-driving with 30 cars available in Las Vegas — the only place you can request a self-driving Lyft in the country. Just this week Lyft hit 30,000 rides. It’s been operating since May.
Valeo is a French car parts company that develops a lot of self-driving technology. Their self-driving experience, dubbed Drive4U, was the most problematic in that a driver making a U-turn ahead tripped up the vehicle and the safety driver had to take over — but again, it was another ride through bright lights and wide boulevards. It handled the rest of the ride smoothly enough. And that’s why the safety operators are still there, for those moments.
At this point it’s the innovations inside the vehicle that are more head-turning, like a VR experience or biometric measuring or a remote-controlled autonomous ride, all which Valeo is developing to advance the autonomous ride.
This is a trend companies like Honda and Audi latched onto this year. Instead of showing incremental updates to testing programs, these car makers along with other companies focused more on the car experience, autonomous or not.
Riding in a Russian ride-hailing company’s self-driving vehicle stood out the most this CES. With these rides all more or less the same, this offered something a bit different. Yes, there’s the obligatory “In Russia, car drives you” joke but here’s a company that’s made its start in Moscow — in someways the opposite of Phoenix or Las Vegas, where winters are brutal and the DMV-equivalent is more wary of the new tech.
But as the driving experience in a modified Prius from the “Russian Google” showed, it can keep up with American innovation.
“It’s not if we’ll have self-driving cars, but when,” Yandex’s Dmitry Polishchuk told me as we drove around the area near the Hard Rock Hotel.
In its Las Vegas debut at CES this year Yandex is offering rides with no one in the driver seat — instead the safety operator is in the passenger seat. The next step to a fully autonomous drive.
Self-driving cars are everywhere. Get used to it.
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