Riding in a self-driving Lyft car is way more boring than you'd expect. But that's really the point.
The ride, which I took on the streets of Las Vegas at the outset of CES 2018, was only remarkable in how mundane it was. Turns, lane changes, braking for red lights, accelerating for green — it was all pretty much the same as if a human were doing the driving. Well, if it weren't for the display on the dash showing a LiDAR-constructed view of the streets around us, and the robotic female voice that would occasionally chime in with a "lane change checking" or some other status update.
And this is why the self-driving experience Lyft showed off — developed by its platform partner, Aptiv (formerly Delphi) — is so impressive: The drive felt just like an attentive chauffeur. The driving style was very focused on the passenger, certainly: There were no sudden accelerations to make a stale green light or catch up to traffic, for example.
But it was also very human: When waiting for oncoming traffic to thin out so it could perform a U-turn, the car didn't just position itself in the left turning lane and stop. It moved forward a bit, waited, then after a few seconds moved a bit more, turned the wheel slightly, then crept up a little more as the last couple of cars whizzed by, then did the full turn after they passed. If I didn't know better, I would have suspected the human safety driver, who by law needs to "spot" the wheel with his hands, was the one driving.
That's by design, says Lee Bauer of Aptiv. In developing its self-driving profile, it optimized everything for the passenger experience, making sure the ride was as smooth as possible so people inside the car could actually be productive.
"As you transition the mindset from a driver to a passenger, the experience has to be different," says Bauer. "You drive your car different than you want to be driven."
That became even clearer to me later in the day, when I transitioned back to a regular Vegas cab, and, in the midst of architecting a particularly nuanced tweet, the driver took a hard left turn to beat some oncoming traffic. The force of the turn took me out of the moment, breaking my flow. Where's a robot when you need it?
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