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Qualcomm Technologies invited me for a ride in its autonomous car. I was curious because riding in autonomous cars is a hot ticket at any automotive or technology trade show.

It seems like everybody wants to know, ‘What is it like to ride in an autonomous car?’. I have had the privilege in previous years at CES to ride into different autonomous cars. Just like every model of car has a different style of driving so does each system of autonomous driving.

First Tier-1 Autonomous Drive Vegas-Style

In 2016, I went for a ride in a Tier-1 supplier’s autonomous SUV. The SUV with the assistance of a safety driver travelled a loop around the Las Vegas Convention Center. There were all kinds of gadgets and screens in the car talking to the driver and showing information to the passengers.

Las Vegas is an unusual city to drive in. The style of driving could be described as crazy, wild and extremely fast. The driving style mainly has to due to the way the streets are designed. The streets are very wide; many east and west streets are three to four even five lanes wide.

When lanes are that wide, drivers tend to drive as fast as they can because their field of vision is wide open.

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As a human driver who is accustomed to Los Angeles traffic which is very tight and confined, driving in Las Vegas creates an extremely high level of anxiety. I’ve seen drivers on surface streets drive upwards of 65 miles per hour (104.6 kph). This, of course, puts one in a state of constant fear and anxiety.

My ride in the autonomous Tier-1 test vehicle was on a day with hardly any traffic. To make a left turn, the SUV pulled into the #3 left lane at 45mph (72,4 kph) while other human drivers were honking and yelling expletives because they were going 65 miles per hour even though 45 is the speed limit.

The tech told me that according to Las Vegas law they could not go faster than the speed limit. When the car made a left turn onto Joe W Brown Way it did not enter the correct left lane but the right lane where it wasn’t supposed to be. There was some jerky acceleration throughout the ride. The good news was that the vehicle-to-pedestrian communication did work.

Drive-Pranked in Vegas

A year later, I rode in an autonomous vehicle from an East Asian automaker. To get that ride that was so popular by media, I sat out in the hot sun in the parking lot in front of the Westgate Hotel and just waited until somebody didn’t show up.

Finally, I had my ride in a sedan around a similar loop around the Las Vegas Convention Center. This time there was a ton of traffic and a bunch of pranksters had decided to do whatever they could to make the ride as nerve-wracking as possible. They would pull in front of the AV and then drive very slow or very fast or other unusual manoeuvres.

I didn’t understand what the engineers were saying to each other in their native language but I think it was very unpleasant. They and I were both sweating. There was great tension in the air and the car was really hot – in more ways than one

Of course, nobody got hurt in my earlier Vegas autonomous rides. However, it is human nature to feel unsafe when the car is not driving in the way you expect it to drive with a human driver. 

When Waymo started testing autonomous driving in Mountain View and surrounding areas the complaints from drivers were that the Waymo cars drove like grandmas. The cars were cautious going slower and driving differently than fellow human beings. 

Fast Forward to CES 2020

The Qualcomm self-driving vehicle uses the Snapdragon Ride platform that was announced at CES.

Before the ride, I was given a briefing on the Qualcomm route from the fold-mirrored Delano hotel. The car was going to take on the 15 freeway that runs near the Vegas Strip. This drive previously caused me a lot of anxiety when I drove the route, mainly because the roads are very wide and people drive extremely fast. The route requires merging and dealing with other drivers that the Qualcomm tech called ‘aggressive’ to put it mildly.

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Photo taken by Lynn Walford from the Goodyear Blimp

The route around the Mandalay Bay and Delano Hotel, I had previously driven to get to media events and, by the time I got off of the freeway, I was super-stressed and tense. The traffic went from very fast to congested and slow and I had to get over several lanes without any assistance only by my eyesight.

When I previously drove the route around Mandalay Bay and Delano hotels, I was driving the rental vehicle that did not have blind-spot warning. Sometimes, I would veer into the right lane to get off the freeway but since I could see the cars driving very fast in my blind spots, they honked at me, causing more stress.

Qualcommcar

Qualcomm has taken an approach to self-driving technology to bring it to the masses. Previous autonomous rides were powered on surface streets with multiple sensors and LiDAR and the famous LiDAR can on the top spinning. The test vehicle I rode in was using six radars and eight cameras around the car for 360 degree coverage.

I experienced what Qualcomm calls Level 2 self-driving mainly designed for commuting on highways/freeways.

The safety driver in the Qualcomm Lincoln vehicle had a look on his face that I usually have when I’m driving in Las Vegas. It’s a cross between ‘deer in the headlights’ and ‘if I could I would bite my fingernails’. I felt like a kindred spirit with the driver because when traffic and drivers are that crazy around you, you tend to tighten up and drive more cautiously like a grandma.

Once on the freeway, the Qualcomm vehicle did not drive “like a grandma.” The vehicle was driven onto the freeway ramp by the human and then all the lane merges were done autonomously as well as getting on and off the freeway as well as manoeuvring into in the correct lanes along the route. The style of driving matched the style of the roads.

One of the Qualcomm techs informed me that had tweaked the driving to a more aggressive ‘Vegas Style’.

Autonomous Driving Overpass

‘Driving that’s similar to an expert chauffeur’

I was in the front passenger seat and I could hear the engine rev up to pass certain vehicles. A nice feature of the Qualcomm driving program is very similar to the blind-spot warning that I had experienced on the drive to Las Vegas. With blind-spot warning, when I turned on the signal to go left or right, I heard a ring-sound to alert me that I couldn’t drive into another lane.

The Qualcomm system used in the demo did something very similar to the blind-spot warning. When the car was going to go into a lane there was an announcement from the computer system and the driver had to accept via a button on the steering wheel for the lane change.

As a passenger, I felt safe because the vehicle was telling me what it was going to do and the driver accepted that it was safe to change lanes. I also felt comfortable because I had been trained by my blind spot warning. The vehicle was safe and at the right speed to change lanes.

The human technology assistant in the backseat told me that this kind of self-driving would be perfect for people who have to commute long distances. While on the highway or freeway most of the driving is done automatic autonomously. After exiting the freeway the driver takes over.

The Qualcomm ride for me was totally worry-free because of the smooth driving, alerting that the lane change was coming and the style of the driving that’s similar to an expert chauffeur.

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A Self-Driving Chauffeur

Last year at CES 2019, I rode in a chauffeur-driven Audi and the chauffeur created and ambience in the vehicle that was totally worry-free. The human chauffeur oozed safety, driving smoothly without driving too fast or too slow but keeping with the traffic. In fact, the Qualcomm engineer said that they were able to tweak the algorithm to meet the style of driving on Las Vegas’ freeways.

Qualcomm is not new to automotive. 100 million vehicles are using Qualcomm technology. The new Qualcomm Snapdragon Ride Platform can scale from Level 1 and 2 up to Level 4 autonomous driving. The hardware (also called the trunk in the junk by insiders in the AV trade) is air-cooled, reducing cost.

The Snapdragon Ride Platform combines hardware, software, open stacks, development kits, tools, and a partnership ecosystem. The platform is open to customisation and branding. Snapdragon Ride is expected to be available for pre-development to automakers and Tier One suppliers in the first half of 2020.

Autonomous Driving Traffic

When I came back from Las Vegas, my friends asked “How does it feel to ride in an autonomous car?”

I answered “Eh” as I shrugged my shoulders.

Qualcomm has achieved the right balance – right in the middle – the way an autonomous ride should be – not too exciting or crazy; peaceful and stress-free, just like a ride driven by a mild-mannered chauffeu

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