Everyone remembers their first time in a proper self-driving car. Up until this week, I'd only experienced SAE Level 2 autonomy, but at CES, I finally got the chance to take a ride in a Level 4 self-driving car. It was boring.
But boring is high praise when you're talking about a car that humans programmed to drive itself through the bustle of Las Vegas Strip traffic. Aptiv, the recently renamed mobility arm of Delphi, has put together a car that's generally free of hiccups and actually does a good job of emulating how a human would drive.
Aptiv's BMW 5 Series doesn't look all that different from a standard 5er, with a few key exceptions. Hidden under the bodywork are more than a dozen sensors -- long-range and short-range lidar sensors, radar emitters and cameras, all playing together to give the car a "view" of the road ahead.
Aptiv teamed up with Lyft to offer rides around Las Vegas during CES media days. Using the regular Lyft app, folks can take a ride from the convention center's parking lot to more than 20 destinations around Las Vegas. Considering last year's drive with the same system was relegated to a single, controlled loop, this represents a big step in just a year's time.
Once the car arrived, I slid into the back seat. There was a safety driver up front, because this is still developing tech, but the car did the majority of the work. In the back seat, a tablet let us start the ride and provided a basic map that showed the car moving along down Las Vegas Blvd. This consumer-facing UI is meant to give riders a quick summary of the ride.
Instead of a traditional infotainment display, the 5 Series' main screen focused on Aptiv's tech -- it displays a simplified version of what the car "sees" as it drives down the road. Vehicles are rendered as little cars, and everything else is an amalgam of dots constantly moving on either side of the vehicle. The lane and intended direction are also displayed. For those with a greater interest in the tech, this is the screen to watch.
The drive itself was utterly, completely boring -- here, that's high praise. The ride was like any other, except the car was in charge of driving itself down Las Vegas Blvd. It drove surprisingly similarly to a human. It didn't take extra-long to accelerate or slow down, and lane changes didn't take whole minutes. It felt like any other car I'd take around Las Vegas, except I didn't have to tip the robot at the end.
The only hiccup we encountered was an errant bus that had a corner poking into our lane. Out of an abundance of caution, the car came to a complete stop behind the bus, because it didn't believe it had the space to navigate around the bus without leaving the lane. But as soon as the bus took off, the car kept following its path just fine.
We're still a little ways away from having these cars arrive in a town near you -- Aptiv claims its system will be ready for light commercialization in 2019 -- but we're getting closer. In that sense, it's reassuring that Aptiv's car is as capable and comfortable as it is. In the future, I can only hope that every ride in a Level 4 or Level 5 car is this uneventful.
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