You know times have changed when the editor tells you ‘If it's just a free ride in a driverless car then that doesn't seem like anything that hasn't been done the past few CESs anyway.’ Driverless cars have become kinda normal. Which brings us neatly to Aptiv, the company that has been quietly ferrying people around in a fleet of autonomous BMWs for a while now via its collaboration with on-demand ride provider Lyft.
So, what’s different about the Aptiv service at CES 2019? Well, the look of the Aptiv booth directly across the road from the Las Vegas Convention Centre was much the same as last year. The cars too, look much like before with little in the way of obvious hints that they’re autonomous. There are sensors in the grille and on the front wings of the car, but that’s about it. But it’s underneath the relatively conventional exterior where the real work has been done, with the boot holding the magic boxes that crunch the data and allow this fleet of humdrum BMWs to drive themselves.
Of course, there’s still the slightly boring stipulation that one of the Aptiv staff members has to sit behind the wheel while the car makes its journey. Lee Bauer, Vice President of Aptiv Mobility Architecture Group explains that’s just the way it is, although he and everyone else involved knows these cars can make the journey unaided. Despite the city of Las Vegas and the RTC (Regional Transport Commission) being very supportive of the pioneering work Aptiv has done, nobody seems entirely comfortable to let these vehicles out on the road without a human failsafe component onboard. Just yet.
Being based in Las Vegas for the last three years has, however, allowed Aptiv to hone its autonomous system and the newest incarnation is impressive to watch, albeit from the passenger seat. We pull out on to Paradise Road and the car takes over the steering, accelerator, brakes and everything else. Lee says that while this system could theoretically work with any number of cars, the BMW has always been their go-to vehicle platform because it’s got the best base for the team to integrate their technology.
There are hurdles ahead though, with legislation and red tape being the biggest things to overcome. Different countries come with different rules and regulations. It’s a big problem and, as with any business, managing the scalability of autonomous people carriers is going to be tough. There’s also public perception of autonomous cars, particularly with some high-profile accidents putting people off the idea of driverless vehicles. However, based on what we experienced, a BMW driving itself around Las Vegas does a much better job than many of the human piloted cars. “Las Vegas has quite a lot of bad drivers,” agrees Bauer as we survey the chaotic streets ahead.
Which actually makes it an ideal test bed for getting the system to expect the unexpected. This gets showcased very nicely along the grid route that we follow, with a number of unexpected distractions testing out the car. The latest Aptiv system certainly seems a lot more perceptive than has been reported previously. Roadworks, random pedestrians, trucks and buses were all avoided without fuss. Nothing seems to catch it out, which is, erm, very reassuring. Lee says they have worked hard to whittle away at the rough edges of the system.
Admittedly, this is still a system that works best in this grid-like city environment. The route and everything else has been worked out for a long time, so the BMW knows where it’s going. You even get the feeling the guy sitting behind the wheel could drive the route with his eyes shut because he’s done the loop so many times. But it’s the subtle tweaks that make this uneventful journey just another boring ride in an autonomous car all the more special. While you’re deep in conversation you do tend to forget that this is a BMW that’s working all the controls on its own.
Lee says that is the whole point, because getting people from A to B in comfort and safety is what these cars is all about. “My son,” he says by way of an example, “has no interest in getting a driver’s licence. He doesn’t want a car.” But he does want to go places, so maybe the driverless BMW or something similar has plenty of market potential. As always though, it all comes down to cost. Lee hopes that more automotive makers will join together and collaborate. And city planners will need to be as open-minded as the ones in Las Vegas. Some places will be harder to crack than others, with Lee suggesting that somewhere like New York and its crazy road users as being one of the hardest.
Nevertheless, as the journey progresses the experience gets better and better. As Lee underlined at the beginning, the driving curve is definitely smoother too, more dynamic if you like. Autonomous vehicles have had a tendency to be jerky and erratic as their systems deal with the many and varied things that happen when a car is heading down the highway. The BMW we were in, on the other hand, seemed silky smooth. Even sudden braking to avoid clowns attempting to pull out from side roads was measured and less frenetic. Much better than any human taxi driver we’ve ever had in Vegas, that’s for sure.
Ironically, in a McDonald’s the night before, as he munched his way through a cheeseburger, a regular taxi driver was complaining how Uber had taken all his business. “Unless you get a contract with a strip club or something it’s all gone,” he moaned. So, one wonders, will Aptiv do the same thing to all those Lyft and Uber drivers?