• Ride-Hailing
  • Automated Vehicles
  • Automated Driving Systems
  • Electric Vehicles

Automated Driving on the Las Vegas Streets

Sam Abuelsamid
Jan 28, 2020

Smart Car 2

I completed my sixth journey in 12 years to Las Vegas, Nevada for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). CES is one of the world’s largest trade shows and an event that has become inextricably linked to automated driving. On each trip I've sampled the latest in automated driving technology, including five rides in 2020. Four rides were aboard one of the world’s first public automated mobility services while the last was my first on public roads without a safety driver.

I’ve experienced more automated vehicle types than all but a small group of people in the world. Since I first wrote about the technology in the days of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race for automated vehicles, I’ve seen tremendous progress. Advances in sensing and compute hardware allow for packaging in relatively practical vehicles.

Safety Drivers Were the Norm

I rode in Boss, the Chevrolet Tahoe that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge at the 2008 CES. Maneuvering around a course set up in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center, all of the equipment in Boss precluded a safety driver. Except for a couple of test track rides, all rides since then had a safety operator waiting to take control in case of a problem. The four rides I took in self-driving Aptiv PLC cars on the Lyft network during CES 2020 had a safety driver behind the wheel and a second operator in the front passenger seat to answer questions and alert the driver of potential hazards. Since Aptiv PLC doesn’t have approval from all of the hotel owners, the safety drivers must take control as soon as the cars leave city streets.

Yandex System Removes Safety Drivers

My final CES day this year began quite differently. I met up for the first time with the team from Russian internet search company Yandex. Like its American counterpart, Google, Yandex started an automated driving program several years ago with the goal of eventually deploying the system on its ride-hailing service, Yandex Taxi. In mid-2018, Yandex launched a pilot automated ride-hailing service in Innopolis, Russia that eventually went driverless. However, a safety operator remains in the front passenger seat ready to hit the kill switch if anything goes wrong.

When we set off from the garage of the Hard Rock Hotel, I had a clear view of the steering wheel, Yandex interface, and the road from the left rear seat of a Toyota Prius V. After years in cars where computers were the nominal drivers, I was in a truly self-driven car for the first time on public streets. The roughly 4 mile loop was a relatively easy one to traverse, staying away from the traffic of the Las Vegas strip where the Aptiv PLC cars spend most of their time. There were no unprotected left turns, pedestrians, or cyclists to deal with. The car drove itself confidently and with a bit more aggression than I expected.

It had primarily been tuned to deal with the driving environments in Russia and Israel where Yandex does most of its testing. Thus it accelerated harder and made lane changes quicker than the Aptiv car. However, on the 15 minute ride, the safety operator never had to disable the system and we returned to our starting point safely.

Even with the progress that has been made, most automated driving companies, including Yandex, acknowledge that widespread use of robot-taxis is still some years off. Automated driving in the real world is enormously difficult, but progress is being made.