Hitting the Las Vegas Strip in Lyft's Self-Driving Car
Self-driving cars aren't new to CES, but the technology took a major leap forward this year -- Lyft is allowing anyone at the show to take a ride in a self-driving BMW 5 Series.
I was among the first in line, and after 20 minutes of being shuttled around the Las Vegas Strip, I found myself almost disappointed by the simplicity of the demo -- it just worked.
The trip came with some small caveats. There was a human "safety driver" sitting behind the wheel ready to take over if the car got into trouble, which does remove some of the drama of the ride. Local law also requires a human driver to operate the vehicle when on private property, like parking lots. Once we pulled into traffic however, the car was on its own.
We started at the Gold Lot parking area across from the Las Vegas Convention Center and headed to Caesar's Palace on the other side of the Strip. Traffic was light, but there were plenty of other cars on the road. This was very different from doing a demo on a controlled track.
Shortly after pulling into traffic, the car announced a lane change and executed it without incident. The car seemed to have a top speed of about 30mph, which is just about right for the crowded Strip. The car maintained a proper distance with the cars in front while moving, but pulled in close while stopped at a light. It seems strange to personify the driving, but the car seemed confident -- there was never a time when it didn't know what it was doing.
This particular vehicle was designed by Aptiv, formerly Dephi Automotive, but Lyft is working with a variety of technology companies. The 5 Series BMW looked like any other car on the road, but was loaded with sensors that constantly mapped its surroundings. A center-mounted dashboard showed passengers what the car saw, as it constantly scanned moving traffic and even pedestrians on the sidewalk.
This being Vegas, the car did have to adapt to some odd pedestrian behavior. Toward the end of our ride, three people tried to jaywalk across a four-lane road in front of us. I watched as the Lidar picked them up and made sure they were going to cross our lane. Desperate for an anecdote, I kind of hoped the pededstrians would go for it, but they prudently waited, and our car simply rolled by. Great for the preservation of human life, but not great for storytelling.
The Lyft self-driving car experience isn't just for tech journalists. Anyone within 500 yards of the Lyft booth will be able to hail a car and take it to one of 20 locations around the city during CES. You can't enter your own custom destination, but that gives Lyft something to work on for next year.