A drive on the mild side in Las Vegas

The Weekend Australian - - BUSINESS - CHRIS GRIF­FITH Chris Grif­fith trav­elled to CES in Las Vegas cour­tesy of Sam­sung Aus­tralia.

A driver­less share ride in Las Vegas is not to be missed. That was my thought when I heard that Uber’s main US ri­val Lyft was of­fer­ing an au­ton­o­mous car ex­pe­ri­ence along some of the city’s busiest roads as part of this week’s Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show.

On a sunny Vegas morn­ing The Week­end Aus­tralian’s video jour­nal­ist Tay­lor Denny and I ven­tured to a car park out­side the city’s con­ven­tion cen­tre to try our luck and hail one. The Lyft smart­phone app had geo-restricted driver­less car ac­cess to peo­ple near this car park and we were warned about waits of up to 90 min­utes due to the trial’s pop­u­lar­ity.

I have been in au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles be­fore, in Ade­laide and Mel­bourne, but that was mainly on cor­doned-off sec­tions of high­way with no on­com­ing traf­fic, pedes­tri­ans and other ob­sta­cles, and no rea­son to stop en route. One of these jour­neys was a driv- er­less trip with South Aus­tralian Premier Jay Weather­ill.

This would prove a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. The shiny driver­less BMW was li­censed in Ne­vada to take us along the densely pop­u­lated Las Vegas Boule­vard to The Man­dalay Bay Re­sort, the scene of last Oc­to­ber’s hor­rific shoot­ing where at least 59 peo­ple were mur­dered.

The car ar­rived with two peo­ple in it: a safety pi­lot and a guide. They came cour­tesy of Ap­tiv, the fu­ture mo­bil­ity com­pany that de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy.

The guide ex­plained that the terms of the Ne­vada li­cence re­quired a hu­man to con­trol the car on pri­vate prop­erty, when pas­sen­gers got in and out, and when the car en­tered or left drop-off points. We were as­sured the car would travel au­tonomously for the rest of the 30 minute, 7km jour­ney.

In­deed it did, and the trip was smooth. A per­son be­fore me had de­scribed the ride as like be­ing driven around by your grand­mother. The car would take off and ac­cel­er­ate gen­tly, al­though it would brake firmly at traf­fic sig­nals. And it would tell us what it was do­ing, for ex­am­ple, when it was chang­ing lanes.

When seek­ing to turn left or right, it would at­tempt to change lanes to the rel­e­vant side of the road, as a hu­man driver would. In heavy traf­fic, it would wait for room on the far side of an in­ter­sec­tion be­fore ven­tur­ing across, as we are sup­posed to.

The car was very con­sci­en­tious at traf­fic sig­nals. Whereas hu­man driv­ers would race across an in­ter­sec­tion on am­ber, this car would stop obe­di­ently.

Only once did the safety pi­lot in­ter­vene. A car parked on the road­side was ob­struct­ing traf­fic in our lane. Other cars were care­fully mov­ing around it, but the BMW stopped al­to­gether. The pi­lot ex­plained the car would have re­mained there for­ever un­less she had taken con­trol.

It’s still early days and Ap­tiv ad­mits some sys­tems are not in place. For ex­am­ple, this car would not re­alise it needed to re­fuel. If you let it drive around Vegas on its own, it would even­tu­ally stop in the mid­dle of the street.

The car’s per­for­mance in traf­fic was im­pres­sive and Ap­tiv plans a 2019 roll­out.

That means driver­less taxis and share-ride ve­hi­cles will be fea­si­ble in a cou­ple of years. Hu­man driv­ing jobs could start to dis­ap­pear at that point.

But that’s just 30 per cent of the story. The real chal­lenge with driver­less car tech­nol­ogy is to up­grade in­fra­struc­ture around city streets to sup­port it. There’s the is­sue of how in­sur­ance will op­er­ate when a hu­man isn’t at the wheel. And there’s pub­lic safety. Are we hu­mans ready to trust driver­less cars run­ning up and down the road out­side the pri­mary schools of our chil­dren?

Up­grad­ing road in­fra­struc­ture will be a mas­sive job. In Aus­tralia, we have an­cient sys­tems where most of our traf­fic sig­nals are unco-or­di­nated. We don’t even have dis­plays on most of our pedes­trian ‘‘don’t walk” signs that show the time left to cross a road. Our road sig­nage is prim­i­tive in many re­spects by first-world stan­dards.

Traf­fic sig­nals have to be wire­less-ca­pa­ble in the driver­less car age. Tod Moury, who de­vel­ops Ap­tiv’s au­ton­o­mous fea­tures, says its sys­tem uses two meth­ods.

Work­ing with the City of Las Vegas, Ap­tiv out­fit­ted traf­fic sig­nals with wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions, backed up by cam­eras in the car. Moury is “very con­fi­dent” of the traf­fic light de­tec­tion sys­tem’s safety and re­li­a­bil­ity. “We know a lot more about the traf­fic light con­di­tions than a man­ual driver would.” A com­bi­na­tion of short and long range LIDAR (ra­dio) and radar units, and cam­eras at the front, of­fer a 360-de­gree “en­ve­lope” for sens­ing ob­jects around the ve­hi­cle.

CHRIS GRIF­FITH

The driver­less BMW pro­vided a safe and un­event­ful ride through Las Vegas, but there are a few bugs to be ironed out

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