Self-driving car services are popping up all over the country. But they are not what they seem.
The latest example is the revamped service in Las Vegas from ride-hailing business Lyft.
On Tuesday, the company said it will allow customers to hail a new type of self-driving car in and around Las Vegas, building on a similar service it has offered in the city for the past four years. But the news comes with an important caveat: Driving these cars will be two, what the industry calls safety drivers, who will take control of the vehicle if something goes wrong.
The technology and automotive industries have spent much of the past decade envisioning cars that could drive themselves on the streets. But it will be many years – perhaps even decades – before truly autonomous cars become commonplace. Although leading companies have made significant progress, bringing the technology to the masses is still a laborious process.
“No autonomous system is ready to be deployed in a safe, high-volume, urban environment,” said Schuyler Cullen, who oversaw a team researching autonomous driving capabilities at South Korean tech giant Samsung and which now runs the start-up building. A new type of camera for self-driving cars.
Earlier this year, three other companies introduced self-driving services in San Francisco, Miami and Austin, Texas. All told, these services do not include safety drivers. And, at least in some cases, these cars now operate without drivers. But they are only available to a handful of riders, many of whom are friends or family members of company employees.
Reporters are not allowed to use these services without a driver behind the wheel.
As it stands, only one fully public service operates without safety drivers. Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company, offers driverless service in suburban Phoenix, where roads are wide, weather is predictable and pedestrians are few.
While the new services are rolling out in places like San Francisco, they come with important caveats. They will be available only in tightly restricted areas. They will operate at speeds less than 35 or 40 miles per hour. They will be closed in bad weather. And companies will employ technicians who can monitor the machine remotely if something goes wrong.
Carl Yagnema, CEO of Motional, the company that operates Lyft’s self-driving cars in Las Vegas, said that was expected. “The technology required for autonomous driving is extremely complex,” he said. “The solution will be found step by step.”
Mr. Yagnema notes that unlike other services, anyone can ride in the Motional cars that Lyft offers in Las Vegas. The cars will be more advanced than Lyft uses in the city starting in 2018, and the two companies have developed a new app that can be used to unlock car doors.
Mr. Yagnema said the company’s latest vehicles were “a path toward a driverless system” that Lyft and Motionional plan to introduce next year.