The first time I opened my Lyft app to summon a ride here at Las Vegas for CES 2019, I nearly screamed. Instead of seeing the usual map interface, a message popped up offering me a chance to ride around Las Vegas in an autonomous car. HELL, YEAH! I couldn't opt-in fast enough, imagining myself pulling up to events in a self-driving Lyft, the envy of all my coworkers and friends.
And... it never happened. Although Lyft's autonomous car program in Las Vegas has been fully functioning since May 2018, the fleet is still a mere 30 cars out of hundreds of drivers, and I kept getting paired up with human beings instead. Thankfully, Lyft stepped in to help and I finally got my ride around the neon-splashed, car-choked Strip.
For car enthusiasts and my colleagues over at CNET sister site Roadshow, the novelty of self-driving cars may have lost its shine. But for everyday riders like me, cars that maneuver themselves are a magical glimpse at an inescapable future where programs and sensors, instead of people, rule the road.
Lyft's interest in self-driving cars is just one example of how autonomous technology will change driving behavior. Self-driving cars are being embraced by the entire automotive industry, from Chevy to Volvo. Reducing a dependence on human drivers will make roads safer in theory, as the technology on-board -- lidar, cameras and a pile of sensors -- are designed to help avoid crashes, swerves and sudden shifts in speed. The advent of 5G wireless technology will also play a significant role, helping autonomous cars and buses talk to each other and to smart lights, to keep traffic patterns more predictable, and therefore more safe.
However, this idyllic vision is still years, or possibly decades away, and the going is slow. Lyft rival Uber took its self-driving cars off the road after a fatal pedestrian crash in Arizona last March, the first ever for a fully autonomous development vehicle. And regulators and passengers alike remain skittish about the safety of a 3-ton machine that can get around on its own.
I share some of these concerns, but they do nothing to cool my curiosity about what it's like to be in a self-driving car. I live in Silicon Valley and work in San Francisco, home to Google, Lyft, Apple and Waymo. You can't throw a loaf of sourdough without hitting a self-driving car on a test drive from one of a couple dozen companies experimenting with the emerging technology.
But seeing them drive by on the highway or city streets is one thing. Sitting in the back on a regular ride, feeling the car accelerate, brake, and turn all on its own, is a completely different experience. Besides, those test cars look like those little kids with a propeller beanie, their camera domes and antennas sticking out at all angles. Apart from the partner branding, Lyft's cars are regular BMW 540i vehicles that its partner Aptiv retrofitted. The self-driving future doesn't get much realer than this.
What it's like to hail a self-driving Lyft
If you live in a place where self-driving Lyft cars are available (and you've opted into the service), matching up with one is easy. When my Lyft minder -- Jody Kelman, the director of the self-driving platform -- opens her app the screen snaps to the self-driving option, and language on the screen makes it clear we're being paired with that kind of car. We can still manually switch to other categories, like economy and luxury vehicles, with a swipe of your finger, but what's the fun in that?
Our dedicated car pulls up, and I climb in the back. One difference between a self-driving Lyft and the traditional variety is that two "drivers" sit up front, one to pilot the car, and a safety operator that's like a co-pilot. That means we're limited to three passengers total: Kelman, a CNET video producer and me. I sit behind the driver so our video camera can shoot his hands, and crane my neck to look at the controls. It's a tight squeeze.
I also bump my knee on a screen affixed to the back of the front seat's central armrest. Right now it's mirroring our driving route, but Kelman says it will soon show information that introduces riders to the concept of autonomous cars. We're ready to go.
Vernon, our driver/not-driver, sits in the driver's seat, his hands always resting on or near the steering wheel. Drivers aren't allowed to text or otherwise use their phones. Vernon is more than just window-dressing. In Nevada, you need an autonomous license plate and can only flip into self-driving mode on public roads. Private businesses, like the casinos that line glitzy Las Vegas Boulevard, need to give permission, so Vernon pilots the car the usual way until we hit the Strip. He's also keeping an eye on the system to make sure the car goes where it's supposed to, ready to intervene at the merest whiff of trouble.
Once we turn left onto Las Vegas Boulevard, Vernon presses the cruise control button on the steering wheel and takes his foot off the gas. I can feel the car kick take over the controls with a slight jerk. It feels just like switching into cruise control mode on any other car, but isn't jarring. The Lyft car hugs the left lane in anticipation of turning left into the Aria Hotel two miles down the road. There's not a lot of proactive lane-changing happening here.
At one point, a red car juts into the pocket ahead of us and I feel our Lyft respond with a firmer, more sudden brake. But unlike some human drivers, who might mash the brake in surprise or to avoid hitting the bumper, this stop felt even and controlled. On the ride back to Mandalay Bay, with crushing 5 o'clock conference traffic piling up, our Lyft took more stops and starts, and led us into another lane ahead of our right turn back into the hotel drop-off point.
If I hadn't known I was in a self-driving car, I'd hardly be able to tell. In autonomous mode, "Vernon" appears to be an extremely measured defensive driver who's amazingly consistent. Although I initially balked at sitting on the left (I know it sounds crazy, but that seat makes me queasy), there wasn't even a hint of car sickness here.