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Aptiv self-driving cars navigating Las Vegas Strip with Pittsburgh technology

Aaron Aupperlee
| Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, 4:21 p.m.
A self-driving BMW by Aptiv heads toward the Las Vegas Strip during a ride Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Aptiv partnered with Lyft to offer autonomous rides during CES.
Aaron Aupperlee | Tribune-Review
A self-driving BMW by Aptiv heads toward the Las Vegas Strip during a ride Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Aptiv partnered with Lyft to offer autonomous rides during CES.
Zach Mussey lets the car do the work during a ride Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 at CES in Las Vegas. Mussey is a safety driver for Aptiv, which partnered with Lyft to provide self-driving car rides during the trade show.
Aaron Aupperlee | Tribune-Review
Zach Mussey lets the car do the work during a ride Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 at CES in Las Vegas. Mussey is a safety driver for Aptiv, which partnered with Lyft to provide self-driving car rides during the trade show.
Safety driver Zach Mussey sits behind the wheel of a self-driving car developed by Aptiv. The cars are giving rides throughout Las Vegas during CES.
Aaron Aupperlee | Tribune-Review
Safety driver Zach Mussey sits behind the wheel of a self-driving car developed by Aptiv. The cars are giving rides throughout Las Vegas during CES.

The four miles of the Las Vegas Strip can be a nightmare for drivers.

Gridlocked traffic. Cars pulling out from small alleys and hotel entrances. People everywhere. Some in the crosswalks. Some not. Some sober. Some not.

"That's why we picked it," Jim Zizelman, an executive at Aptiv, said as his company's self-driving BMW pulled away from Caesars Palace and turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard.

Aptiv, the automotive technology company formerly known as Delphi Automotive, brought a fleet of eight self-driving BMWs to CES and partnered with Lyft to provide autonomous rides from the Las Vegas Convention Center to popular spots around the city. The company is one of several showing off autonomous driving technology at CES.

Aptiv gave the Tribune-Review a ride in the car Sunday, days before CES opens and rides are offered to trade show attendees. The software driving the car and planning the route it takes was developed by Aptiv engineers at the company's facility in Pittsburgh, Zizelman said.

Zach Mussey, a safety driver behind the wheel of the BMW, is also from Pittsburgh.

Mussey lives in the city's East Liberty neighborhood. He worked as a safety driver for Uber's autonomous car program in Pittsburgh before joining Aptiv about six months ago. Mussey spent a solid two weeks in the driver's seat of the BMW learning Aptiv's self-driving system.

During the about two-mile ride from the convention center to Caesars Palace, Mussey kept his hands near the wheel and his foot near the gas and brake pedals but never had to take control of the car. The car warned Mussey when it was about to change lanes so he could double-check the blind spots it had already scanned.

Once, two people darted out into the street about 20 yards ahead of the car. The BMW slowed slightly until the people returned to the sidewalk.

"It wasn't overreacting, but it wasn't underreacting either," Zizelman said of the car's actions.

The self-driving BMWs in use in Las Vegas have 21 sensors, a combination of cameras and lidar and radar units. The sensors are built into the car, integrated into the grille, attached under the side mirrors, placed behind bumper panels and hidden elsewhere around the car. The sensor package gives the car a 360-degree field of vision.

What the car doesn't have is a whirling lidar rig bolted to its roof, a tell-tale sign on other self-driving cars.

"Instead of putting all that stuff right on top of the vehicle and creating that ugly appendage, we actually try to integrate it into the features and into the structure of the car," Zizelman said.

As the car returned to the convention center, it readied for a left turn. It hugged the center median and slowed. It stopped, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear. Then it accelerated, turned and changed lanes better than most drivers on the streets. The ride was unremarkable, and that is what is remarkable.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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