LAS VEGAS—I peered around the passenger seat in front of me as the Kia SUV I was riding in sped across the worn parking lot towards a Chrysler minivan with its hatch open. Inside the van was a traffic light shining Red.
Then on a tablet mounted to the dash numbers started counting down. As the count reached 0, the traffic flashed green. The tablet mounted in the car also showed a green light.
The count-down came from a traffic signal controller attached to the traffic light and it was letting us know that it would turn green before we reached the simulated intersection ahead. We tried it again and this time we were greeted with a raucous alarm as we blew through the red light.
Obviously, the traffic light sensing hardware and software in the SUV was working as well as the autonomous vehicle control systems that Savari installed in the rental car were working.
But Savari wasn’t done with us yet. The car we were riding in was equipped with vehicle to vehicle communications. So after we’d finished running some red lights, we tested the ability of the onboard sensors and the communications to keep us away from other cars and from pedestrians.
The alarm sounded again and car slammed the brakes when another vehicle drove across our path from the left. The same thing happened when a pedestrian crossed our path.
Finally, we ventured out on to the streets of Las Vegas, where I noticed that several traffic lights near our test lot had tell-tale antennas on the cross arms. As we went around the block, we were alerted that the lane in front of us was closed for construction prompting us to move over a lane.
The construction didn’t exist in reality and instead we were responding to signals from those traffic controllers that were telling us that the lane was closed.
Note that the vehicle I was riding in wasn’t actually an autonomous car – someone from Savari was doing the driving while we got to experience the flow of data that an autonomous car would respond to as it drove around the area. We finally got back to the Savari staging area. As I walked back to the convention center, I noticed an Audi tooling around a test track with nobody in the car.
As I spent my last day of CES talking to companies about autonomous cars, I noticed a couple of important things. Perhaps the most important was that while automakers are deeply involved in self-driving cars, they aren’t doing most of technology development to make them work.