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Self-driving vehicles are here – if you know where to look


self-driving car Sounds like an idea that always stays a few years away from reality. But we may not be looking closely enough.

According to two women who are leading efforts to commercialize self-driving vehicles, the technology has arrived well and truly — and while it may be limited to certain areas for now, they think it could become more common in the next few years.

Jodi Kellman oversees the self-driving division of ride-sharing company Lyft, which has been testing self-driving taxis in Las Vegas since 2018.

Aubrey Donnellan is the co-founder and CEO of Bear Flag Robotics, which mods tractors to make them independent.

Kellman and Donelan spoke to WIRED Staff Writer Ariane Marshall at WIRED HQ at CES, a virtual event that explores the premium tools, technologies, and ideas on display at the giant trade event.

“It’s already here — that’s the good news,” Donelan said when asked when self-driving vehicles will finally arrive. “We’ve been in the market for two years now.”

Open fields present fewer challenges to self-driving vehicles than congested roads, and thus limited forms of autonomy have become a feature of tractors in recent years. Donelan says she expects her company to make more autonomous tractors in the next few years.

The Bear Flag was purchased by agricultural equipment giant John Deere in August. Deere also announced its fully autonomous tractor at CES, which could prompt more farmers to deploy robots in their fields.

Lyft, which offers self-driving rides in Vegas in collaboration with autonomous car company Motional, has shown autonomy works in limited scenarios, Kellman says. Lyft users there can sometimes call an autonomous car using the same app they use on other rides. Kellman says the company has completed more than 100,000 self-driving rides, and plans to expand the offering with a dedicated self-driving taxi service in 2023 as well as other deployments in other locations.

“What we’ll see is that this really starts in earnest next year,” Kellman says. But autonomy will not be available everywhere at the same time. “This will happen in pockets over time, in certain cities, in certain weather conditions, at certain times of the day.”

Lyft said in April it would sell its Level 5 self-driving subsidiary to Woven Planet, a Toyota subsidiary, but the company still has a product team dedicated to supporting self-driving, and continues to work on the technology with other companies.

The development of self-driving cars has been hampered by technical challenges caused by weather and other factors, and some efforts to push the technology forward have led to fatal crashes.

Kelman and Donnellan say that understanding how humans interact with autonomy will be critical to ensuring both safety and successful adoption. “It’s ironic that the companies that do this, and it’s so worth the effort, put the human being at the center of their robotic innovation,” Donelan says.

According to Kelman, companies working on self-driving cars can learn not only from successes in other industries such as agriculture but from each other. She notes that Motional shares data collected from self-driving with other companies. She says this approach, which is gaining momentum in Europe, could speed up technology development.

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