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What it’s like to ride in a self-driving Lyft

Matthew De Silva

At CES, the consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas this week, I hit the jackpot: getting picked up in a self-driving Lyft.

A few days ago, when I arrived in the city and opened the Lyft app, I was presented with the option to travel in one of its autonomous cars, powered by Aptiv. Lyft has been testing these vehicles in Vegas since early 2018 and they’ve received an average rating of 4.95 out of 5 stars. To date, Lyft has provided more than 75,000 self-driving rides in the city.

Nice wheels.

But with hundreds, if not thousands of regular drivers on the app, scoring a robotic ride was far from certain during my short time here. Nonetheless, I opted in and much to my surprise, on my fifth ride, I was paired with a self-driving BMW 5401.

To be clear, it wasn’t completely autonomous. As I clambered into the car, I was greeted by two humans—LaToya, a backup driver, and Steven, a vehicle operator in the front passenger seat. He was there to explain the car’s features and address any concerns I had. In my excitement, I forgot to buckle up and Steven gently reminded me to strap in for the ride.

I took the middle seat because it had the best view of the self-driving display.

Lyft’s LIDAR and radar display.

Steven explained that through Aptiv’s LIDAR (light detection and ranging), as well as radar, the car generated its route and navigated around the city. On my ride from Bally’s to the Park MGM, LaToya drove the car manually while on private property (ie, hotel driveways).

But on the streets, she released her grip on the steering wheel and the car took over.

To tell you the truth, I was a little scared. I couldn’t help but think of the poor woman, Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by a self-driving Uber in Arizona a couple years ago. Plus, it’s simply disconcerting to be in a car where the driver’s not holding the wheel.

A few moments stood out during my 11-minute, 1.37-mile ride. First, the car was cautious. As we pulled into the left turn lane at a traffic light, it waited patiently for traffic to pull forward. Although the Beemer could’ve squeezed through a small gap, the algorithm is a much more conservative driver than I would be.

The one place where “hover hands” are acceptable.

At the light, the car made a wide turn and I thought we might end up in the wrong lane—but we were fine. As we approached the Park MGM, Steven explained that they’d have to switch to manual mode once again because construction work had altered the road. To my relief, LaToya took the wheel in her hands and one block later, the ride was over.

This wasn’t a media-sponsored test ride. It was just me and a Lyft in the wild. At the end of my ride, I gave Steven and LaToya five stars for their service and I ran along.

After my first ride in a self-driving car, I can say with confidence I’d do it again. (You’d probably have to ease me into a fully autonomous version, without any operators.) For the most part, the ride was smooth and it allayed many of my fears. I’m not 100% comfortable with self-driving cars yet, but I’ll definitely consider them with a more open mind.

Aptiv did not immediately respond to an email inquiry about how many cars it’s powering on Lyft’s Las Vegas network.

 

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