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Testing a self-driving car on the Las Vegas strip

Self-driving cars are cruising the Las Vegas streets this week, and anyone can catch a ride.Well, anyone who w...

Posted: Jan. 9, 2018 12:57 PM
Updated: Jan. 9, 2018 12:57 PM

Self-driving cars are cruising the Las Vegas streets this week, and anyone can catch a ride.

Well, anyone who walks to the Las Vegas Convention Center, opens the Lyft app, and is going to one of more than 20 pre-set destinations.

Lyft and automated car tech company Aptiv have teamed up for a self-driving car demonstration during CES 2018, the massive annual tech conference.

It's a clever way to start warming the public to the idea of driverless cars. Though the actual technology is still years away, it's likely ride-hailing cars are one of the first places people will experience it.

We got in the back seat for a 3.5 mile ride to Caesar's Palace and back. It was mostly smooth, with a few unsettling moments when the car stopped or moved suddenly.

Nevada has a special registration for automated cars and allows them to test on open roads with some restrictions. One rule is that there has to be a specially trained human "safety" driver behind the wheel at all times.

Our driver's foot hovered over the gas and break pedals. His hands were tensely curved around the wheel without touching it, ready to take over in an instant. He was not allowed to talk while the car was in self-driving mode. He was definitely paying more attention to the road than normal drivers.

At one point, our car hesitated in the middle of a busy intersection, possibly confused by the traffic light which just turned yellow. The driver pressed down on the gas and the car jerked forward and out of the intersection.

Related: Pizza Hut is working on self-driving delivery trucks

It made right and left hand turns, changed lanes and even swerved a bit to avoid a car nearby. A display on the dashboard showed dots representing the objects, people and cars detected by the vehicle's sensors.

There are nine different lidar sensors, 10 radar sensors and two cameras built into the body of the car. Eventually the sensors and "policy and planning" software will be good enough that the safety driver won't been needed.

Ride hailing services rely on a large pool of human drivers and their cars. Self-driving cars might eventually put an end to those jobs, though there would likely be an in-between phase when both are needed, according to Lyft.

Related: Volkswagen and Hyundai get serious about self-driving car tech

Still, Lyft is promoting driverless cars as something that will have a positive impact on the world. They will free up land currently used for parking spaces to make more parks, said Jody Kelman, project lede for Lyft's self-driving platform.

She says the company also envisions turning transportation "into something more communal." The app could look at your music, podcast or reading tastes and make sure you ride with people who share your interests. Like a mobile filter bubble.

If getting around in shared vehicles that don't need parking spaces sounds appealing, you can also try Lyft Line -- the company's existing carpool option. Or a bus.

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