Self-driving car services are popping up across the country. But they are not what they seem.
The latest example is an upgraded service in Las Vegas from the ride-hailing business Lyft.
On Tuesday, the company said it would allow users to hail a new kind of self-driving car on and around the Las Vegas Strip, building on a similar service that it has offered in the city for the last four years. But the news arrives with a significant caveat: Riding along in these vehicles will be two of what the industry calls safety drivers, who will take control of the car should anything go wrong.
The technology and automotive industries have spent much of the past decade promising cars that would drive the streets on their own. But many more years — perhaps even decades — will pass before truly autonomous vehicles are commonplace. Though the leading companies have made significant progress, delivering the technology to the masses remains a painstaking process.
“No autonomy system is ready to be deployed safely, in high volume, in urban environments,” said Schuyler Cullen, who oversaw a team that explored autonomous-driving possibilities at the South Korean tech giant Samsung and who now runs a start-up building a new kind of camera for self-driving cars.
Earlier this year, three other companies introduced self-driving services in San Francisco, Miami and Austin, Texas. All said these services would not include safety drivers. And, in at least some cases, these cars are now operating without drivers. But they are available only to a few riders, many of whom are friends or family of the companies’ employees.
Reporters are not allowed to use these services without a driver behind the wheel.
As it stands, only one completely public service operates without safety drivers. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, offers a driverless service in the suburbs of Phoenix, where the roads are wide, the weather is predictable and the pedestrians are few.
Even as new services expand to places like San Francisco, they include significant caveats. They will be available only in tightly constrained areas. They will operate at speeds below 35 or 40 miles an hour. They will shut down in unfavorable weather. And companies will employ technicians who can take control of the car from afar if anything goes awry.
Karl Iagnemma, the chief executive of Motional, the company that will operate Lyft’s self-driving cars in Las Vegas, said this was to be expected. “The technology needed for autonomous driving is enormously complicated,” he said. “The solution will be found incrementally.”
Mr. Iagnemma points out that, unlike with other services, anyone can ride in the Motional cars that Lyft is offering in Las Vegas. The cars will be more advanced than the ones Lyft has been using in the city since 2018, and the two companies have come up with a new app that can be used to open the cars’ doors.
Mr. Iagnemma said the company’s newest cars were “a path to a driverless system” that Lyft and Motional plan to unveil next year.