The most frustrating thing about getting a demo in one of the autonomous Aptiv BMWs at CES 2019 was having the driver present. Yep, although these cars are able to drive themselves, and have been doing just that over the course of the last three years around the streets of Las Vegas, rules and regulations state that there still has to be a human behind the wheel.
So, while Aptiv provided the perfect antidote for CES-weary feet, it certainly didn’t offer any thrills – which is actually what the company appears to want. An autonomous taxi ride should be uneventful, thrill-free and, crucially, safe, it says.
That’s not to say the latest incarnation of the Aptiv system isn’t exciting. It’s impressive to watch, with steering, braking, acceleration and indicators all being handled without anyone touching the controls. And, unlike some autonomous vehicles we’ve experienced, the revisions to the way the journey unfolds are subtle but they make for a smarter, more well-rounded trip. In fact, it’s pretty easy to forget that the guy sitting in the driving seat doesn’t have his hands on the wheel and is basically a passenger just like the rest of us.
More data means better driving
The company first got members of the public into the autonomous cars back in 2018 with a fleet of 30 autonomous vehicles using the Lyft network. That number has now grown to 75 test cars, which operate in and around the central Las Vegas area. As you’d expect, this has allowed Aptiv to get all-important feedback from real people, which it has combined with its vast mountains of data in order to tweak and fine-tune the operating system.
In short, Aptiv has beefed up its what it calls its operational design domain (ODD), which is allowing the company to increase its square mile coverage and also factor in more driving scenarios.
The city of Las Vegas hosts a staggering 21,000 conventions a year and while that means Aptiv/Lyft have lots of potential customers at their disposal, it also means there are an incredible array of different driving scenarios to ingest. In other words, the city of Las Vegas is a dream test bed location for the growing business.
The result (although it’s not really the end, as this is an evolutionary process) is a much better service. The company explains that one of the main areas of feedback that allowed them to make improvements has come from aspects of the ride quality that would tend to make members of the public feel a little bit uneasy in the past.
The engineers listened and if you take a spin in one of the new Aptiv vehicles you’ll find it’s a much more fluid, dynamic experience. The self-driving BMWs take a calmer, more measured approach to unforeseen obstacles and that’s a very good thing.
Interpreting human behavior
Jumping into the back of one of the BMWs in a car park across the road from the Las Vegas Convention Center, we are greeted with a predictable, mundane saloon interior. There isn't much visible evidence that this is an autonomous vehicle, save for the central screen on the dashboard that displayed multi-layered data diagrams of the road ahead.
The outside of the car is also low-key when it comes to showing off its autonomous credentials. There are sensors, most visibly in the grille and on both of the front wings, but nothing prominent.
As we move off, Lee Bauer, vice president of Aptiv Mobility Architecture Group, is in the front passenger seat to offer his thoughts on just how much progress is being made.
“Pedestrians are a real problem here,” he says, "so we've had to do a lot of work in that area. I guess in a lot of ways Vegas is the perfect workspace scenario because you’ve got a lot of unpredictable people and a lot of unusual behavior.
“People also drive very poorly in Vegas too,” he notes, “so what stands out the most with the revised system is that more dynamic kind of flow to deal with these factors. It's a lot smoother. The psychology of going from being a driver to a passenger is a very complex thing and people have a completely different expectation when they're passengers. And, if they're going to try to use that passenger time being productive they want the car to be smooth and the drive to be uneventful.”
Continuing support from the city that has been vital in getting the project to progress however. “We work very closely with the government across all facets of it,” adds Bauer. “Having the Regional Transport Commission (RTC) is a big advantage of Vegas. The RTC controls the entire region via their command center, so you get a one-stop shop in terms of joining up the dots.”
Moving beyond LA
And, reckons Lee, that ever-growing mountain of data is helping Aptiv progress things nicely to the next level. “I guess the interesting point about this car is that it's almost sort of just a regular looking vehicle,” he notes. “And, again, that was always the objective. We wanted to make it seem like a regular experience. What people don’t realise is that cars are probably 90% capable of doing more than you're aware of. At the same time, increasingly, a lot of younger people don’t care about cars. The only time I ever opened the bonnet of my car was to get a leaf out.”
Everyone still needs transportation, so the ability to have autonomous people-moving services seems like a very good area to be investing time and money. However, it’s complex on many different levels.
“Every country is different and in different ways,” Lee says. “But cities like Las Vegas are helping and we’ve also been working with people in other locations, such as Singapore where they’re progressive and open-minded too.”
So while it might not happen overnight, the gradual proliferation of autonomous people-moving machines isn’t as far off in the future as you might think.