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My non-event at CES 2019 was a self-driving car ride

Mundane and memorable at the same time? That’s how I felt on my virgin self-driving voyage at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month. Lyft, the rideshare company, and Aptiv, the mobility company building driverless technologies, offered me the chance to ride the Strip and nearby highways in their new retrofit BMW Series 5. My ride was both underwhelming (I’ve had more clutch moments in a Vegas cab) and overwhelming (all that technology) at the same time.

Turns out that I’m not so special either. There are 30 of these cars in Las Vegas that are now part of the Lyft fleet. Lyft riders in Vegas can actually opt-in for a self-driving ride right on the app. If there’s one nearby, it’s yours. And Lyft has already completed 30,000 of these rides around the country.

The self-driving experience turns out to be a bit oxymoronic. Driverless cars in Vegas have drivers. Actually two. I had a human driver behind the wheel and an Aptiv representative in the passenger seat. Plus, I had a Lyft PR person and my photographer. That made for a crowded ride.

The human driver is there as a precaution should the system fail. It’s also still illegal to have driverless cars on private property in Vegas, which meant that we were on human control while entering and exiting the hotel grounds. Once we got into the driverless mode, I had to peer over the driver’s shoulder to make sure that there was no hanky-panky with a foot on the brake or a hand on the wheel. The driver was pretty chill and into the experience, especially when you consider he’s on his way to obsolescence.

You have to be a bit of a geek to appreciate the exciting part. The driverless experience is like a bunch of IoT devices that forgot to include you in the party. There are 21 different sensor devices. The car’s lidar, which is like radar but based on laser light emissions, are mounted at the front beneath the grill and on the mirrors, making it look like any other normal car, unlike the bizarre Lidar-topped Google cars that were so popular a few years back. There are also radar sensor mounts on either side of the vehicle.

State of the art GPS, along with IMU (inertial measurement unit) sensors, work to know the location of the car to within a quarter of an inch at all times. Altimeters, gyroscopes and magnetometers work in unison to constantly transmit the car’s exact position. At the same time, the cameras are surveying the landscape for lane-changers, crazy pedestrians and other obstacles. The combined effort of these thousands of dollars is basically digitizing the world around you and making it actionable using your car.

You get to watch the whole driving show on a visual display that looks a lot like SimCity. Buildings appear as squares, cars appear as moving car-blobs and roads show their traffic stops, turn lanes and more. It’s by no means realistic, and most of us, including our guides, couldn’t quite explain what the color-coding meant on the display. In the back seat of the car, however, was a full-screen GPS display showing where we were at all times.

Of course, there are lots more features, some of them already found in semi-autonomous cars. Real-time data can analyze the fastest route through Vegas traffic, and they’re even beginning to predict potential problems faster than a human could — like a driver cutting lanes.

My ride was short and totally uneventful. We kept within the excruciatingly slow speed limit. We passed one car (yeah!) and had zero close calls. Any bets on when I’ll be taking my first self-driving ride without the human driver backup? Not sure when, but I’m pretty sure it will be at CES.

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