Aptiv’s Autonomous-Vehicle ‘Air-Traffic Control’

Operating a fleet of AVs requires an omniscient view of every vehicle’s actions and condition.

An 85,000-ft2 garage-like space is dedicated to managing about 100 vehicles in Aptiv's Las Vegas Technical Center, where vehicles are calibrated, fueled and serviced. (Aptiv)

It’s well known that the safe operation of an autonomous vehicle (AV) relies on robust sensing, path planning and compute capability. What’s often overlooked is the role of a command center in managing operations of a self-driving fleet. That’s why global Tier 1 supplier Aptiv built a sophisticated control room at its Las Vegas Technical Center to manage the self-driving service deployed in December 2018 via a partnership with Lyft.

A large wall of monitors gives command-center staff a full picture of vehicle and roadway conditions, including live map of where each vehicle is located. (Aptiv)

“It’s kind of like air-traffic control for our fleet,” said Karl Iagnemma, president of autonomy at Aptiv. “We monitor the status of the fleet and make sure they’re in the right place at the right time.” Iagnemma recently provided a tour of the 130,000 sq-ft2 facility. An 85,000 sq-ft2 garage-like space is dedicated to managing about 100 vehicles, with about two dozen of Aptiv’s AVs, adapted BMW 5-Series models, on the road in Las Vegas at a time. Over the past 18 months, Aptiv has provided more than 95,000 autonomous rides to paying members of the public.

Aptiv recently added self-driving routes for employees from Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport to downtown. (Aptiv)
Visitors to the Aptiv technical center can see self-driving vehicles. The live command-center operations happen behind the glass. (Aptiv)

“This center is really about learning how to put a driverless fleet on the road,” Iagnemma said. Those learnings will be critical as Aptiv launches a new, bigger self-driving business via a $2 billion investment and partnership with Hyundai. The Las Vegas command center currently is dedicated to vehicle operations only in Las Vegas, but it also has capabilities to monitor fleets in other cities. As part of its R&D program, Aptiv deploys test fleets in Pittsburgh, Boston and Singapore.

Real-time maps, vehicle data, video feeds

The heart of the center’s operations is the control room, where one of the walls is covered with monitors. In one glance, one can consult a real-time map indicating each vehicle is located, its ride status, speed and vehicle diagnostics. The wall also shows a heat map of popular areas for pickup and drop-off and a tally of high-level metrics such as trip distances. There’s a matrix of video feeds from both road-facing and cabin-facing cameras mounted on the vehicles, as well as public traffic-control cameras showing an expanse of roadway conditions.

Data from the car’s onboard computer system pings the tech center with any vehicle warnings; a check-oil indicator, for example, could prompt that car to return for service. All the sources of information, live and historical, are merged for smoother future operations. “We can put the cars in places where we know the demand is going to be,” said Iagnemma. “When a customer presses the button on an app to call for an Aptiv self-driving vehicle, the vehicle may already be pulling up to the curb.”

Safety drivers can be monitored from the command center. Any single driver will not spend more than four consecutive hours behind the wheel. (Aptiv)

The dozen or so workstations in the command center, staffed by a combination of engineers and program managers, can zoom into specific cars or zoom out to see broader patterns. The team is continuously improving the technology and path planning. But there’s a broader goal. “We’re learning about the product experience, how to put a system on the road that operates in a fashion that’s safe, efficient, and comfortable,” said Iagnemma. “That’s the real motivation behind this activity in Las Vegas.”

Even automated cars need TLC

The cavernous garage adjacent to the control room is where the fleet of vehicles is physically house and managed. It’s also where vehicles offload data ingested by Aptiv servers. Vehicles are also calibrated, charged (if electric) and serviced in a traditional sense so they can be in service 20 hours a day, seven days a week. During our visit, a row of about a half-dozen Chrysler Pacifica hybrids were sporting Aptiv’s next-generation “driverless-ready” platform, which is now undergoing evaluation.

About two dozen Aptiv self-driving cars are on the road in Las Vegas at a time. That number will expand over time. (Aptiv)
Karl Iagnemma, president of autonomy at Aptiv, will soon become the chief executive of the $2 billion Aptiv-Hyundai self-driving business. (Aptiv)

The self-driving Bimmers on the road today always have two safety drivers in the front seats. But with the Pacificas, Aptiv will begin to take the drivers out of the vehicle and start testing a truly driverless fleet. Iagnemma says that Aptiv’s self-driving software already has been integrated with about seven or eight different vehicle platforms. But when the new Aptiv-Hyundai robotaxi business becomes fully operational later this year, the focus will shift to designing and building vehicles that will roll off Hyundai assembly lines fully equipped with self-driving software and sensors.

That will enable Iagnemma, who will serve as CEO of the new business – and his team of about 700 engineers, research scientists, and support staff – to offer an end-to-end self-driving service. It will include a tightly integrated fleet of Hyundai AVs, all the software needed to operate them and a full set of command-center capabilities. Iagnemma explained that the combination of the integrated equipment and services, including the command center, will allow the company’s customers to “plug in their ride-hailing network and start picking up and dropping off passengers and generating revenue.”

An expanding, global operational domain

The Aptiv-Lyft vehicles currently operate in the 20 square-mile region of Las Vegas, including the world-famous strip, where there’s the highest demand. The company recently added self-driving routes for employees from Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport to downtown.

The city of Las Vegas has strict rules about where ride-hail passengers can be picked up and dropped off. The challenge of ensuring legal and safe management of those customer exchanges, and how vehicles are positioned at curbs, is part of the learning process. “You’re trying to stress the system to understand what it can and can’t do,” said Iagnemma. “It’s about moving from R&D to commercialization.”

Our tour concluded in the training center. Despite the high level of automation, humans will remain critical. “Safety drivers have a really important job,” Iagnemma conceded. Candidates for safety-driver positions are thoroughly vetted. All safety drivers – who are employees, not contractors – go through a six- to eight-week testing regimen. Aptiv requires two safety drivers in the car at all times. In an eight-hour shift, any single driver will not spend more than four consecutive hours behind the wheel. The company plans to provide a completely driverless, paid ride-hail service by 2022.