Aptiv Gaining Real-World Lessons for Las Vegas Service

While Waymo launched its commercial robotaxi service in Phoenix in December, Aptiv has been selling rides in autonomous vehicles in Las Vegas for months. And that experience has given the vehicle technology supplier crucial insights into the fledgling industry, Aptiv’s AV chief said.

Testing is one thing — Aptiv is doing that, too — but actually operating a service for paying customers offers insights you can’t get anywhere else, President of Autonomous Mobility Karl Iagnemma told TU Automotive.

Aptiv has been operating a fleet of self-driving BMW 5 Series sedans in Las Vegas since May, selling rides to ordinary Lyft customers through a partnership with the ride-hailing giant. It’s given more than 25,000 rides so far. On December 17, the company opened a 130,000-square-foot technical center for operations, research and development, data management and demonstrations.

Any Lyft user can choose an autonomous ride if a car is readily available, though the app also lets them opt out of the service. The cars serve more than 1,600 destinations within a coverage area of about 17 square miles on and around the Strip and downtown Las Vegas, Iagnemma said. (Aptiv’s total operations area in the region spans 155 square miles.)

Like Waymo, Aptiv and Lyft have a safety driver behind the wheel on every paid ride. Iagnemma said the company is working toward fully driverless operation but wouldn’t estimate when.

Commercial operation is a demanding job for the 30 vehicles that Aptiv has dedicated to the service. Each is on the road about 20 hours per day, Iagnemma said. That leaves a fairly short window for tasks like maintaining and calibrating sensors and transferring data. With a paid service, downtime counts.

“When a car is sitting there transferring data, it’s not out in the road, generating revenue,” Iagnemma said. Aptiv hopes eventually to finish each download in a matter of minutes.

There’s plenty of information to extract from an AV after a day of driving. How much you collect depends on what you choose to leave behind, he said. For these vehicles, it’s roughly in the terabyte range, Iagnemma said, declining to give more details for competitive reasons.

One thing Aptiv and Lyft didn’t know until they launched the service was what customers would think of paying for a self-driving ride. The results have been gratifying: Users who evaluated their rides on Lyft’s standard rating scale gave an average 4.95 out of 5, they say. And rather than just take an AV once to post on social media, customers have come back for more rides, Iagnemma said.

Navigating the Strip on an average day, heavy traffic or not, is fairly straightforward for Aptiv’s cars, he said. The challenges come with unstructured situations such as unexpected construction zones. That’s where the company’s software development, including simulations, comes in. For each new release, the software needs to master an average of 40,000 simulations of traffic situations, Iagnemma said. He says Aptiv’s cars have handled unstructured situations well.

The cars ferrying paying customers around are on a less frequent release schedule than others that Aptiv is working on in Las Vegas, Boston, Singapore and Pittsburgh. While the regular test vehicles may get new code daily or weekly, the software used in the commercial pilot changes less often and is exhaustively tested and highly stable, Iagnemma said.

So far, what Aptiv has learned about the business of operating AVs has been promising, he said. The lack of a driver, and the overall efficiency that can be achieved with an AV fleet, should lead to good economics for self-driving before the end of this decade.

“We see the business model for driverless ride-hailing as being extremely favorable in the near term,” Iagnemma said.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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