LAS VEGAS — The throngs of technology enthusiasts have gone home. The elaborate displays in the convention center have been dismantled. The self-driving technology demonstrations have largely ceased.
But weeks after CES, Aptiv’s autonomous vehicles — with their signature orange hubcaps — remain a fixture on the Las Vegas Strip.
The global automotive supplier has staked permanent roots in Las Vegas. The city has become an operational hub for Aptiv, which keeps roughly 75 self-driving vehicles on public roads here.
Self-driving technology was pioneered in the deserts south of the city, and Aptiv’s work is ushering in the next chapter in the automated-vehicle era within a 20-square-mile area inside the city — getting that technology into the hands of paying customers.
“So far, the story has been about tech development,” said Karl Iagnemma, president of Aptiv’s autonomous mobility division. “Now, we’re shifting to commercialization.”
Aptiv has been generating revenue for about a year and a half. In conjunction with Lyft, the companies have deployed BMW vehicles equipped with Aptiv’s self-driving systems on the ride-hailing network in Las Vegas.
Those vehicles serve about 63 pickup and drop-off areas in the city, up from 17 in January 2019. They still have human safety drivers behind the wheel — and will for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Aptiv and Lyft are gaining insights from their partnership. Having delivered more than 95,000 rides through early January, they know a lot about when and where customers begin their journeys and where they want to go.
Information is collected and analyzed at Aptiv’s Las Vegas Technical Center — from the outside, a nondescript office building and garage located a stone’s throw from the southern perimeter of McCarran International Airport.
Inside the sprawling facility, there’s an area for safety drivers to sit and listen to daily briefings. Before each shift, they gather to discuss software updates and release notes. They do a debriefing as well, Iagnemma says, after shifts that last eight to 10 hours, with operators taking three-to-four-hour stints behind the wheel before they take a required break and then switch with a partner.
Nearby, the bulk of the company’s second-generation BMW 3-series fleet sits parked in a gleaming white garage. Aptiv is using Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, which at least for now are only for r&d purposes. Later, Hyundai vehicle platforms will be added to the fleet, a result of the $4 billion joint venture Aptiv and Hyundai Motor Group unveiled in September.
In another room, a screen covers an entire wall. It provides a visual overview of the real-time location of every vehicle in service. Employees can click on a vehicle and get a treasure trove of instant information on vehicle speed or a view of the road from on-board cameras. If a check-engine light illuminates, a worker at the center receives a notification.
Employees can overlay a heat map on the screen that helps them understand demand for rides in certain areas, and they can project when and where demand is expected to peak. They also can monitor real-time video feeds from the city’s Regional Transportation Center, and plot to avoid traffic jams and other mishaps.
The facility serves as a national command center. From Las Vegas, Aptiv’s employees can conduct the same monitoring of test vehicles deployed in Pittsburgh and Boston. Someday, they may have the capability to add Singapore, where Aptiv also conducts on-road operations.
Since there are human safety drivers aboard the vehicles, Aptiv has no current need for remote operators. But Iagnemma says the company is developing its own in-house teleoperation solution, and it’s possible such operators would be conducted from the Vegas operations center.
There are other major milestones with the technology. For the past two years, Aptiv has worked to integrate the self-driving systems from two acquisitions — Ottomatika, a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, and nuTonomy, Iagnemma’s Boston-based startup.
“That’s been one of the big promises we’ve been realizing,” he said. “We have a diversity of perspectives. In some cases, we can combine them. In other cases, we’ve used one as the primary system and the others as secondary. It’s a unique advantage for us, to have that diversity of thought on the software strategy.”
While Aptiv’s rides in Las Vegas have been done within its Lyft partnership, Aptiv is branching out on its own.
At CES, Aptiv announced an agreement with city officials that will allow for access at McCarran, where it will pick up and drop off a select group of passengers. For the time being, the rides aren’t available to the general public. Iagnemma said data has shown a significant portion of ride-hailing demand comes from people going to and from the airport, so it’s an important location that could bolster future business.
One more reason that, for Aptiv, Las Vegas looks like the right place to raise the stakes.