Home Connected Car Self-Driving I took a gamble by riding in a self-driving Lyft in Las Vegas

I took a gamble by riding in a self-driving Lyft in Las Vegas

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It’s not terribly easy to go to a casino in Las Vegas and come back without losing any money, but this week I pulled it off. The trick? I never even got out of the car that brought me there.

I was in a BMW 540i that was riddled with self-driving technology from British company Aptiv. They’re here at the Consumer Electronics Show in partnership with Lyft to offer rides in these semi-autonomous BMWs, demonstrating to show-going tech fans what it will be like to one day hail a self-driving cab.

Like most good self-driving demonstrations, it was pretty boring. The ride was smooth, though my six-foot frame was a bit cramped in the back seat. The car didn’t veer from side to side like some semi-autonomous vehicles tend to do, and the safety driver never had to take over because something went wrong. The only mildly frustrating thing about the experience was sitting, stopped, at some of the notoriously long Las Vegas red lights — a problem that even semi-autonomous cars can’t fix.

Speaking of, coming to Las Vegas to show people what it will be like to hail and use a self-driving Lyft is a pretty bold move. Las Vegas has what’s known as Botts’ dots, instead of painted lane lines; the street layout is an absolute mess; and CES week brings in well over 100,000 visitors, adding to an already significant crush of pedestrians.

But Lyft certainly picked the right company to help them try and pull off this trial. Aptiv, which used to be called Delphi Automotive (but don’t confuse it with Delphi Technologies, which was spun out of Delphi Automotive) has been exhibiting its self-driving tech for years at CES. It has more experience dealing with the specific challenges that Las Vegas presents than a company like, say, recent Aptiv acquisition NuTonomy, which has been performing limited self-driving trials for Lyft in Boston for a few weeks.

The car even looks pretty normal, at least as far as semi-autonomous vehicles go. While it carries 10 radars and 9 LIDARs, they’re all smoothly integrated into the BMW’s frame. The most noticeable ones are the hockey puck-shaped LIDARs tucked underneath the side mirrors. There’s no spinning bucket on the roof and no crazy rack of sensors above the windshield.

Lyft and Aptiv will be performing this trial throughout the week, allowing regular attendees near the Las Vegas Convention Center to sign up for one of these rides through the Lyft app.

Riders will have to go to a specific parking lot, and endure a short explanation about the technology, so it’s not quite as seamless as ordering a regular Lyft ride. Get past that, and you’ll be treated to a taste of the future. Tapping to request a self-driving ride right in the Lyft app offered an exciting spark — but then a human had to bring the car around. He also drive us out onto the city streets. Lyft tells me that Las Vegas regulations wouldn’t let them put the cars into autonomous mode on private property.

Once we were out there, though, the driver enabled the autonomous system, signaled by a voice that bellowed “autonomous mode activated” from the speakers behind my head. A tablet attached to the back of the armrest showed where we were on the map (it’s also where the passengers will confirm they’re in the car, and lets them “start” and “stop” the ride), while the display up on the dash of the BMW showed all the data the car was “seeing” at any given moment.

There were other audio cues, like for when the driver decided to change lanes. This was the only part of the autonomous experience that wasn’t autonomous. It was up to the driver to use the signal stalk to move the car over into different lanes.

Our car passed through a handful of lane changes, red lights, and some moderate traffic before we arrived at Caesar’s Palace. There, our human driver took control once again in order to navigate through the chaos that is most Las Vegas casino pickup / drop-off zones, and then it was back out on the strip in self-driving mode, headed back to the convention center. (One question I didn’t get answered is how long an Aptiv-powered self-driving Lyft would circle before it leaves you out to dry for being late for a pickup.)

Lyft says it took a really “lightweight” approach to the experience in the car, which I appreciated. I wasn’t bombarded with zealous explanations of the technology on the rear-facing tablet, it simply showed the essentials: where we were, and where we were going. The company says it’s trying to figure out how much information to show passengers in order to help them feel comfortable with the idea, which is the whole point for an experiment like this one in the first place.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience of hailing a self-driving Lyft will be a completely calm and quiet one. The company wants to “eventually make [the tablet] the interface between the passenger and the vehicle,” according to Bobby Rasmusson, who is in charge of the whole experience on the Lyft side. “There’s a lot of nuance when you hop into a Lyft right now between a driver and a passenger, and we try to keep that going in a Lyft-y way.”

What this experience will eventually look like when it’s truly commercially available is hard to pin down. My money’s on an all-out entertainment and advertising blitz. Right now, though, it’s still a lot like a normal Lyft ride. One thing did feel different: our driver wasn’t allowed to talk. It wasn’t because he signed some crazy iron-clad NDA, I was told, rather that he needed to keep his eyes and ears focused on the road. After all, if something had gone wrong, it would have been completely up to him to keep us all safe.

At one point during our ride, we came to a stop next to a Las Vegas taxi. The passenger in the rear seat was having a happy, animated chat with his driver. Most of the time when I’m in a car, I want to keep to myself, but I can’t say that I wasn’t a little bit jealous.

Then the pair noticed the tech-splashed car next to them. The passenger smiled and shot a thumbs-up. So did the driver. Self-driving cars are certainly coming in some form, and trials like the one Aptiv and Lyft brought to CES this week make it feel closer than ever. But they’re still a curiosity — even to the people whose jobs they threaten.

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