My Night in a Self-Driving Taxi
In more than 15 years covering Las Vegas as a travel writer, I’ve probably cruised down Las Vegas Boulevard thousands of times.
Never, however, have I hit the Strip in the back seat of a robot car.
That all changed earlier this month, when a totally ordinary call for a Lyft from drinks to dinner turned into a ride to remember. The autonomous vehicle, or AV, took me about three miles from the Palazzo Las Vegas to the NoMad Las Vegas inside the Park MGM. For all but a few brief moments, the vehicle essentially drove itself.
Las Vegas certainly isn’t the first city where ride-hailing companies are testing autonomous vehicles; companies have tested similar concepts in San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. WaymoOne, founded by Google and now under the Alphabet umbrella, launched automated taxi service in Arizona earlier this month.
For the most part, these early deployments have been uneventful. In March, however, an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bicycle across a dark street.
Despite this setback, companies have continued to experiment with autonomous vehicles around the world. According to the Global Atlas of Autonomous Vehicles in Cities, more than 80 cities worldwide and 30 in the United States currently are piloting AV tests. Earlier this fall, the US House of Representatives passed its version of the SELF DRIVE Act, which could result in as many as 100,000 self-driving cars taking to the road by 2021 or 2022.
The Senate is expected to vote on the act at some point next year. Whenever the vote happens, one thing is sure: Self-driving cars are the future.
Which brings us back to the Palazzo on that fateful evening. Seconds after I downed my last drink at the Electra Cocktail Club, I used the Lyft app to order a car, as I’d done countless times before. The app searched for nearby drivers. Then it told me I could go with a traditional Lyft or choose the AV.
Obviously, I chose the AV.
Five minutes later, my app alerted me that my ride was in range. A minute later, down near the south valet, a white BMW with red rims pulled around the bend, the word "APTIV" (the name of the company that makes the technology) written in big letters on the sides. As it approached, I spotted two men in the front seats, and could barely contain my disappointment.
“I thought this was a robot car?” I asked.
“It is,” said the guy in the passenger seat, who was holding a laptop open to a spreadsheet and identified himself as Alex. “We go manual through valet. Come on in and buckle up.”
The ride began with instructions: No photos. No videos. No sticking anything out the windows.
Also: No talking to the guy in the driver’s seat, whose name was Nick and whose job was to be ready to assume control of the vehicle at any time.
I agreed, with the caveat that I’m a journalist and likely would sneak a pic or two no matter what. The guys didn’t respond (which I took as a tacit agreement they weren’t going to kick me out for taking the pictures that you see in this post).
Immediately, I could see this was no ordinary car. There was a 15-inch screen right in front of me — a high-definition monitor with a real-time map that showed where we were and where we were headed next. A similarly sized screen on the dashboard was even busier, and it showed what looked to be an assessment of everything around us: cars, people, traffic lights and more.
As Nick inched out onto Las Vegas Boulevard heading north, Alex explained that the information on that front screen was fed by 21 sensors around the car for lidar, radar and vision, and three antennas for GPS and dedicated short-range communications. He added that the information changed as conditions did, in real time.
Other vehicles on the Strip appeared as rectangles on the monitor; arrows inside each box depicted which direction the vehicles were heading. Pedestrians appeared as triangles. When the light in front of us turned from red to a green arrow, the monitor reflected the change (as well as changes to other lights in the view on the screen). Nick then made a U-turn onto Las Vegas Boulevard heading south and put the car into auto mode. From that point forward, the car was essentially driving itself.
The first few minutes in autonomous mode were thoroughly uneventful. Traffic moved along at about 10 mph, and the car hung with the crowd — stopping, going and stopping again, all smoothly.
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Earlier tonight I was lucky enough to randomly get a rideshare in one of @lyft's self-driving cars. We went from @palazzovegas to @parkmgm on the Strip. I wasn't supposed to take pix but I did anyway. There were two humans up front: One just sitting there for manual overrides and another capturing data from the ride. The car used 21 sensors to navigate. We didn't crash! Such a cool experience. #Vegas #onassignment #freelancing #latergram
We came to a stop in the queue by the light at Flamingo Road, and the computer in front of us displayed traffic moving perpendicular in front of us (east and west on Flamingo) as a bunch of tiny dots. I remarked that the dots reminded me of the text cascades from “The Matrix.”
“It kinda does,” Alex said, breaking for a moment his steely demeanor. “I never thought of it like that.”
In front of the Fountains of Bellagio, the experience became frustrating. Traffic was crawling, and we got stuck behind a billboard truck. The native New Yorker inside me was irritated that the robot car wasn’t beelining for the empty lane to our left, so I complained about the situation to Alex. He noted that computers don’t experience the emotion of impatience, then instructed Nick to re-engage manual mode and pass the truck.
Later in the ride, back in auto mode, the car showed off some of its more sophisticated abilities. When a dude ran across eight lanes of traffic, the car slowed to avoid hitting him. During an attempted lane change, the car observed another vehicle trying to get into the same lane, so it slowed down and gave way, moving over only after the other car had changed lanes first.
I raved after each of these incidents — hooting, hollering, and exclaiming like Rain Man. It’s one thing for a robot nerd to watch YouTube videos about this sort of data response. It’s another thing to see it in live action.
By the time we pulled up to the porte-cochere at NoMad, I wanted another hour in the car. The good news: Apparently now that I’ve done one ride in an AV, I’ve been flagged to get AVs more often.
So what if I ended up being 30 minutes late to my dinner? Who cares that I was too distracted to call home and say goodnight to my kids? My $10 ride in an autonomous Lyft down Las Vegas Boulevard was more exhilarating than any thrill ride, more titillating than any lap dance and more intoxicating than any signature cocktail ever could be. It’s a Vegas experience I’ll remember forever.
*This post has been updated to reflect that Waymo was founded by Google, but is now its own company as part of Alphabet (Google's parent company). Waymo is not owned by Google.